Convincing classic rock isn’t particularly tricky to emulate. Unless you’re going for the early prog rock or lick-driven blues, the technical barrier to entry is fairly low: a few chords, a sense of rhythm, and a bit of anger. That’s why most retro acts tend to be as prevalent as they are forgettable.
Twenty five-year-old New Orleans native Benjamin Booker stands apart from this scrum. He lends mid-20th century blues rock a modern twist without any indication that it’s precisely the point. Moaning and buzzing like the demo tape that re-routed Booker’s fate from a future on the other side of the music industry, his self-titled debut certainly doesn’t sound new. But thinking back to the last to you heard a youngster blend blues rock with punk this convincingly, you might end up at The White Stripes. No wonder Jack White saw fit to bring the youngster on the first half of his “Lazaretto” tour.
Where Mr. White’s voice matched the squeal of his fiery guitar solos, Booker’s is a gravelly growl. It sounds learned rather than earned considering his age, but it still perks the ears when you hear it follow the Chuck Berry-checking guitar run of opener “Violent Shiver.” As White’s timbre paired off with his guitar, Booker’s finds its mate in the drums, thudding along with his syncopated sweet talk in “Cheppewa” and the infirm defiance of “Wicked Waters.”
There’s also a lot of T. Rex to Booker’s punk/blues rock blend. This is to do as much with his sense of riffs as it does the electric organ lingering throughout the album. Unlike T. Rex, though, he’s struggles to filter his grueling energy through a slower tempo without losing the thread. “Slow Coming” simmers compellingly, but it’s an off-speed pitch in the album’s early build-up. And though not here, when the crashing urgency falls away, the artifice of Booker’s voice is at times laid bare. Like the character he inhabits, it sometimes rambles for the sake of rambling, covering for a lack of purpose. Album closer “By The Evening,” condenses these shortcomings into one quarter-baked obscure fade, rendering his gruff voice a near parody of itself.
Sour notes aside, Booker has the fire and modernity to make his material work most of the time. His concerns are closer to our generation—the “computers takin’ up my time,” that he sings of on “Slow Coming.” It’s an unsexy confession that no musician of his ilk would be expected to reveal, let alone sing about. But despite how it sounds, with a riotous fire in its belly, “Benjamin Booker” is for our youth as much as Chuck Berry was for early baby boomers. Whether or not he touches that level of genius, the fact his debut gives us cause to revisit that era is reason to deem it a success.
Dylan Owens is Reverb’s all-purpose news blogger and album reviewer. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.