Reviews: Benjamin Booker, 'Benjamin Booker;' Merchandise, 'After the End;' Set and Setting, 'A Vivid Memory'
These are supremely heady days for the Tampa Bay music scene. Three of the area’s highest-profile acts in recent years are releasing albums on back-to-back-to-back weeks, all on national or international labels, all accompanied by the sort of cool-kid buzz that rarely makes its way to Florida.
On Tuesday, blues-rock whiz kid Benjamin Booker released his self-titled debut on ATO Records, home to My Morning Jacket, Alabama Shakes and Drive-By Truckers. Next week, underground New Wavers Merchandise will release After the End on 4AD, home to Bon Iver, The National and Iron and Wine. And on Sept. 2, St. Petersburg post-metal quintet Set and Setting will drop A Vivid Memory via L.A.’s Prosthetic Records, which has released albums by Lamb of God, Gojira and Testament.
Here’s a look at each new release.
Benjamin Booker, 'Benjamin Booker’ (ATO)
Release date: Aug. 18
Last year, it looked like Booker was a shoe-in to become Tampa’s long-awaited big, breakout artist. Then he and drummer/co-conspirator Max Norton packed up and took their game to New Orleans. Oh well. Hard to argue the move didn’t work out for them, considering Booker, 22, has since toured with Jack White, performed on Conan and Letterman and been named the “suavest new kid in Southern rock” by GQ.
On Benjamin Booker, he wastes no time establishing his point of view. Violent Shiver opens with a Chuck Berry-style lick that explodes into punkish New York Dolls territory, a fiery stylistic mash-up that resurfaces throughout the album. Booker’s moany mumble and drunkenly distorted guitar on Chippewa scream garage-rock revival; a soulful organ and Norton’s rambling road-show percussion on Happy Homes wouldn’t feel out of place at a Pentecostal church.
Booker and Norton meet up once more in the middle of new single Have You Seen My Son, a screaming buzzsaw of kickdrums and distortion that sounds like everything you want your Southern punk rockers to be. It’s the high point of an album that sounds rawer than Kings of Leon and more soulful than the Strokes — a tantalizing sweet spot that too few rock artists attain.
Already one of the coolest new cats on the circuit, Booker still has a ways to climb before the world knows him like Tampa does. But that Jack White co-sign was one hell of an attention-getter. He’s got a nation of tastemakers watching what he’s going to do next.
See him live: Following a European tour and several festival appearances, Booker will return to Tampa on Oct. 25 for the Coral Skies Music Festival, alongside Cage the Elephant, Julian Casablancas, Bleachers and more, at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre. Tickets are $30-$150; click here to get them.
Merchandise, 'After the End’ (4AD)
Release date: Aug. 25
Here in their hometown, arty auteurs Merchandise are still a shadowy entity — despite high-profile features by international tastemakers NME and Pitchfork, they’ve declined most local interview requests, including one for this piece, and frontman Carson Cox has called Tampa a "cultural wasteland" — and that approach fits their hazy, at times avant garde music.
So who could’ve expected them to record an album as glistening as After the End? Crisply produced by Gareth Jones (Depeche Mode, Erasure, Grizzly Bear), it’s a 10-song pastiche of glimmering ’80s and ’90s alt-pop, miles closer to the mainstream than anything the band has ever done.
The album’s first two singles, Little Killer and Enemy, show a band still entrenched in its Jesus and Mary Chain phase, all fuzzy guitars and echoing reverb wrapped around a straight-ahead beat and Dave Vassalotti’s repetitive guitar licks, with only a few minor off-kilter touches (a harmonica-like synth squiggle on Enemy, for example) here and there.
But Cox no longer sounds totally hemmed in the band’s signature shoegaze swoon. The dreamy disco of Green Lady is peppered with woodblocks and synthesizers; Telephone swings along like a jaunty stroll through London; Looking Glass Waltz is, well, an honest-to-goodness waltz, delivered in Cox’s signature Morrissey croon, with a touch of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler thrown in.
The album is rife with dusty laments like Exile and Ego and Life Outside the Mirror that call to mind Automatic For the People-era R.E.M. That album is not a commonly referenced (or particularly hip) indie-rock influence these days, but it was a monster at the time. After the End will never become Automatic For the People — Merchandise are too aggressively underground for that — but it does herald a bolder, brighter era for one of Tampa’s most mysterious artists.
See them live: Merchandise will play a free show at 10 p.m. Aug. 29 at the Hub, 719 N Franklin St., Tampa.
Set and Setting, A Vivid Memory (Prosthetic)
Release date: Sept. 2
It’s tough for any instrumental group to escape comparisons to Explosions In the Sky, the Texas post-rock quartet behind the heart-pounding score for Friday Night Lights. Set and Setting’s A Vivid Memory shares some of Explosions’ sonic hallmarks — dramatic swells and ebbs, swirling walls of guitar, thunderclouds of percussion — but stays true to their own independent, thought-provoking ethos.
The band has described A Vivid Memory as “a conceptual album based on the tragedy of loss and death from both an insider’s and outsider’s perspective” — an ambitious mission for a lyricless LP, but guitarist Shane Handal’s visceral delivery floods your earbuds with an atmosphere of doom and desperation. The dual assault of the band’s two live drummers, Mark Etherington and Stephen Handal (whose credited role is actually “drums/ambience”), adds a pummeling urgency to the deeply emotive Waves of Luminescence and turns Coping, against all odds, into a fist-pumping, head-banging assault.
That’s not to say it’s all gloom and blackness in Set and Setting’s world. There is real beauty in ethereal tracks like Emptiness, a sparsely plucked interlude with a lonely, droning guitar howling deep in the background; and hypnotic 10 1/2-minute album closer The Last Night, A Vivid Memory.
A Vivid Memory will appeal to fans of ambitiously structured alternative metal, including vocal groups like My Bloody Valentine or Tool. On Acceptance and Descending Sun, you practically expect Maynard James Keenan to jump in and start screaming. But on the whole, the album’s crushing power means we’re not likely to see Set and Setting add a vocalist anytime soon.
See them live: Set and Setting will perform from 4 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Orpheum as part of Southern Darkness Fest, which features more than two dozen metal bands, including Pelican, Black Tusk and Phobia, at the Orpheum, Crowbar and the Ritz Ybor. Tickets are $35 advance, $45 at the door. Click here for details.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*