Release Date: Jun 2, 2017
Record label: ATO
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Those among us who rebuke change are doomed to stagnancy, complacency, even failure. You see it in relationships all the time--when one person changes faster than the other, or one just doesn't change at all. We all saw it in politics yesterday, when Donald J. Trump singlehandedly, shortsightedly decided to withdraw the United States from the environmental pact known as the Paris Accord.
On his eponymous 2014 debut, Benjamin Booker roared and wailed, reveling in his debt to the garage-blues popularized by Jack White, but he's come a long way in the three years separating Benjamin Booker and its follow-up, Witness. Booker made a pilgrimage to Mexico in 2016, deciding that he needed a jolt of inspiration for his second album and, while he was there, he began to process the protests fueled by the rise of Black Lives Matters. Separated from his home country, he viewed himself as a spectator to what was happening in the U.S.
Benjamin Booker's followup to his durable 2014 self-titled debut album plays out as an ode to humanity. Drawing from his experiences growing up as a black man in America's South, Witness strikes an emotional chord in illustrating the charged emotions that swirl around the very real concept of systemic racism and subsequent fallout. The New Orleans-raised Booker wields anger that frames his objections as having borne witness, interconnecting psychic pain by way of smoky R&B, gospel harmonies and hard-edged production. Witness is Booker's take on rock and blues music at its most gritty and raw, at its core a reflection on the merits of faith in a faithless universe.
When Benjamin Booker sings, he sounds like a train trying to squeeze through a blocked tunnel. His voice is a potent weapon, a gravel inflected rasp deployed with unerring accuracy. Witness starts like a train as well, thundering out on a wave of pent-up political fury. As the record continues, a bluesy feel enters, Booker recounting his own experience of racism in America amidst swirling guitars, soaring vocals, handclaps, and lyrical repetition.
I n 2016, fired up by Black Lives Matter but feeling like "a songwriter with no songs", Benjamin Booker took himself off to Mexico to figure out some answers. The New Orleans-based 26-year-old has returned with 10 personal songs which reflect issues felt by young black Americans, from isolation (The Slow Drag Under) to political epiphany and a desire to "tear this building down" (All Was Well). With the barista turned bluesman's musical palette now stretching from retro soul to percussive electro, Right on You even answers his question about what Otis Redding might have sounded like had he been "strapped to a punk band".
By rights, Benjamin Booker's second record should be a blistering, caustic affair. After all, the New Orleans singer-songwriter penned most of it in Mexico, having crossed the border to work on new music last year and therefore watching his homeland's slow-motion car crash of a presidential election from the other side of a border that will eventually be manifest physically in an enormous wall, should the commander-in-chief keep his (literally) divisive promise. Instead, Witness is a measured piece of work, the emotional heft of which only becomes apparent with repeated listens.
When the going gets topical, Mavis Staples seems to be the go-to singer for artists looking for a little historical veracity. Such is the case with the title track from Benjamin Booker's second album, "Witness" (ATO). Staples helps turn a suggestion of divine intervention -- "Can I get a witness?" -- into a plea for something more: "Am I gonna be a witness, just a witness?" Those questions hover over the album.