The self-titled debut album by Benjamin Booker begins with an avalanche set in motion by a guitar riff. Tribal drums join the commotion, then a grainy voice. "Where I'm goin', I never know." The singer doesn't sound upset or confused. "We found a way," he declares, comfortable in the chaos he and his tiny two-man band have created.
Booker, a singer-guitarist from New Orleans via Florida, and drummer Max Norton sound ready to conquer the world from the get-go on "Violent Shiver," and "Benjamin Booker" (ATO) marks their journey with a mix of bravado, menace and desperation. "Violent Shiver" was one of the most exciting tracks to surface in the last few months, a prelude to Booker's arrival on the national scene this summer with slots on Lollapalooza and as an opening act on Jack White's national tour.
His first album makes a virtue of dirt and concision. The distortion in Booker's guitar matches the graininess in his voice. He sounds like a 60-year-old, chain-smoking blues sage rather than a fresh-faced, 25-year-old upstart. Norton's drumming is heavy on the tom-toms and dry in tone, holding back on the cymbals until absolutely necessary. The music feels relentless, outfitted with only occasional window-dressing: a harmony vocal here, a dollop of organ there.
It's in a hurry to get messed up, a couple of kids rushing head-long through a blues tradition brimming with vibrant ghosts – notably house-rockin' boogie maestros such as Hound Dog Taylor – and scratchy punk singles from the Gun Club and Black Flag. "Throw myself into wicked waters," Booker sings midway through the album, as though enjoying the prospect of untethering himself from the predictable path.
On "Have You Seen My Son," the perspective shifts to a parent who mourns the fate of her child in a "world full of venom." It's a wrenching melody, with a guitar interlude that isn't so much a solo as an outburst, then a slow descent punctuated by another solo, this time more articulated and anguished.
The wandering son resurfaces on the scabrous "Spoon Out My Eyeballs," which opens in a dead-of-night whisper, morphs into a fast churn and closes with the singer howling into the night. "It gets harder, harder to be real, to be real, to be real." The wide open highway has become a series of compromises and busted dreams, mirrored by the distortion on "Happy Homes" and the disquieting "I Thought I Heard You Screaming." The latter is the album's quietest track, and also its most chilling. "And the life we're livin' now will surely bury me," Booker murmurs.
On this tales-from-the-road album, Booker sounds eager, yet world-weary. The production will frustrate those who demand cleaner sounds, who like their vocals to rise above the rhythm section. Instead the singer's voice folds into the noise, just another grimy texture on an album that treats the blues not as a museum piece, but as a roadmap of one prodigal son's early life.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun