Benjamin Booker: Benjamin Booker

Booker

This debut album from 25-year-old, New Orleans-based singer and guitarist Benjamin Booker is a curious beast, existing in a strange and liminal place where scuzz-rock, dirty blues, southern boogie, country soul and punk-ish pop meet. It’s good, really good. Some of it is great. It has a frantic and manic energy, energy enough to spare. Its fuzz-guitar is dirty, its drums are thick and pounding, Booker’ voice is drawn and worn and suggestive of authenticity rather than pretension, and he and sideman Max Norton aren’ afraid to get sloppy and loose and weird when they rock.

But in the end, it’s let down by precisely that which makes it different: its diversity.

Beginning with a “Johnny B. Goode’ inspired guitar riff, opening track “Violent Shiver’ soon also features a driving, thumping proto-punk groove, surf-style drum breaks and Beach Boy-esque ooh-ooh-ooh backing vocals. Not even three minutes later (thank something for the return of short songs), second track “Always Waiting’ begins with a piece of post-Sabbath doom-sludge, morphs into a jangly and upbeat chord-driven tune underpinned by a train-train snare beat which would have seemed at home on an early Beatles record, and finally falls apart in a wash of psychedelic guitar noise that has steadily been growing more intrusive. Less than two and a half minutes after that (another short song, hooray), third track “Chippewa’ combines taut bar-room-boogie riffs with cruising-down-the-highway organ fills and the same train-train snare beat as “Always Waiting’, the whole lot dissolving into a distorted bridge/solo that’s fuzzy enough to almost collapse in on itself.

And so on it goes, an exhilarating mix of influences, a grab-bag of different styles, each song more disparate than the last, something that is ultimately exhausting and a little distracting.

It seems unsurprising, then, that the “straightest” tracks on Benjamin Booker are also the best. “Slow Coming’ is a beautifully mellow piece of bluesy-gospel-soul, with Booker’ strained voice taking centre-stage and the fuzzy guitars and pounding drums remaining understated until the song’ climax (pun definitely intended); while “I Thought I Heard You Screaming’ and “By the Evening’ take this process even further, for the most part featuring only Booker’ voice, a skeletal guitar and a single piece of hand-percussion.

All three more than justify the admission price. If Booker can restrain his hyperactive influence-mashing on his next album and embrace the spirit of these three particular songs, then it might just be a masterpiece.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 29/8/2014)

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Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Fado Legends

 

I have a confession: I have had a long love-affair (obsession) with world music. No matter whether it’s African, American, Asian, Australian, European, Indian or Middle Eastern, something special just seems to happen when the varied cultures of the world either musically express themselves in ways outside of the Western, rock-pop based norm, or adapt this norm to suit their own particular circumstances and backgrounds. You can imagine my surprise, then, when The Rough Guide to Fado Legends landed on my (metaphorical) desk, for contained within were gems I had been unaware of.

To put it simply and bluntly, Fado is the urban folk music of Portugal, emerging in the late 1820s from the poorer neighbourhoods of Lisbon, its songs filled with characters representing the vibrant and crowded waterfront city it came from: lonely sailors, underhanded criminals, abandoned wives and restless girlfriends, downtrodden prostitutes and greedy mercenaries and the occasional pirate.

To do it justice, however, all that needs to be said is that Fado will break your heart.

It is music of regret, of despair, of yearning, of resignation and melancholy, of the end of love and love unrequited. It is sad but it is rarely depressing, and is often surprisingly imbued with a kind-of optimistic acceptance. It is simple without being simplistic, something that is hard to pull off. More often than not, the men and women chosen for The Rough Guide to Fado Legends are accompanied by the subdued strumming of one or two Portuguese Guitarras (Portuguese Guitar, a 12-string instrument that sounds like a cross between a steel-string guitar, a mandolin and a bouzouki), and the effect is devastating – the rich voices of these Fado legends are pushed up-front, almost naked and overflowing with feeling. Nowhere is this felt more keenly than in Antonio dos Santos’ “Minha Alma de Amor Sedenta’ (tracks nine). Its lazily plucked chords gently sit beneath dos Santos’ plaintive voice, a subtle constant that supports his honeyed tone. Every now and then, though, it fades away completely and dos Santos’ voice drops to a whisper, a whisper full of sadness and longing.

If the music contained within The Rough Guide to Fado Legends doesn’ move you, then I doubt anything will.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 27/08/2014)