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Benjamin Booker Is Next Big Voice in Rock

Music critic Jim Farber reviews Booker's 'Witness' and 'Lindsay Buckingham and Christine McVie.'

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Whatever rancid mouthwash Benjamin Booker gargles with in the morning, more singers should take a swig of it. His voice is a wheezy wonder, a highly textured scrape that bleeds with feeling—which is precisely what has him poised for superstardom.

So, when you listen to Booker’s new album, Witness – and you must – you’ll think of the great sandpaper singers of rock/soul history, from Otis Redding on down.

Yet, you won’t find in any of those voices a true mirror of Booker. He has his own way of making harsh sounds beautiful.

Benjamin Booker
(ATO Records)

That’s good because the roughness in his music isn’t confined to the 27-year-old’s voice. Inspired by the roar of garage-rock and the scratches of worn vinyl, Booker’s music makes liberal use of fuzz-tone and echo. But underneath the punky roar beats the heart of a true songwriter.

Witness doesn’t meander its way through rote genre pieces, though the songs do draw on conventional elements of gospel, glam, rockabilly, and R&B. Booker shakes them all up with individual tunes. In “The Slow Drag Under,” he weighs down T-Rex’s chugging chords to find a link in the blues. In “Motivation” he gives orchestral strings an astringency that cuts as clean as a guitar.

Booker proved himself capable of such reinventions on his self-titled, debut album released in 2014. On this chaser, he has upped his game in every way, from the level of the melodies to the focus of his lyrics.

Witness has the consistency of a concept album. Like his voice, and music, it’s a study in distortion – this time relating to action. Nearly all the songs on the new album address the struggle to commit, whether in romance, philosophy or politics. In the album’s gospel-kissed signature piece, “Witness,” Booker asks himself to what degree he’s willing to make a stand for the Black Lives Matter movement. To lend historical context, and symbolism, he hired Mavis Staples to provide backup vocals. An icon of the civil rights movement, Staples functions as the ultimate moral compass for his decision.

In “The Truth Is Heavy,” Booker challenges himself to stick with a relationship longer than he ever has, while in “Believe,” he yearns to have faith so badly, he’s willing to place it in something wrong. At the album’s end, Booker vows to tear-down on his old facade, a decision made deep by a voice of genuine distinction.

(Hear Booker’s “Believe” in the video below.)


Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie
(John Russo)

The other new album to flag this week comes from a considerably more established source.

Lindsay Buckingham and Christine McVie
Lindsay Buckingham and Christine McVie
(Rhino Records)

The tandem album between Lindsay Buckingham with Christine McVie represents more than just the first project to focus on the two Fleetwood Mac mainstays. Because they also invited along the band’s rhythm section, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, that leaves just one Mac missing – twirl-queen Stevie Nicks.

The resultant “almost-Mac” album grew out of a tour that brought Christine McVie back to the band after a nearly twenty-year absence. While Nicks’ decision to sit these sessions out does represent a loss, and a missed opportunity, the dynamic between the two star songwriters fulfills most Mac fans’ surface demands: Want shiny pop melodies? You got ‘em. Labyrinthine arrangements? Them too! Well-woven harmonies? You bet.

Yet, there’s a telling imbalance in play. Buckingham wrote, or co-wrote, eight of the album’s ten songs, leaving McVie to take sole credit on just two. Also, her now 73-year-old voice sounds strange in the studio – more high pitched and reedy than the work from her younger days. Often, she sounds more like Buckingham than herself.

Without Nicks’ voice and songs in play, the two-remaining singer-songwriters blur, creating an album that’s cohesive, but a little bit thin.