It didn't take Benjamin Booker long to get lumped in with the greats. The Tampa-raised singer-songwriter's 2014 self-titled blues-punk debut brought widespread acclaim, not to mention an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, a tour with Jack White and sessions with Mavis Staples.
But no matter how big an artist gets, it seems there are always more idols just out of reach. Take it from Dan Auerbach. The Black Keys' singer and guitarist can headline any festival he wants, and is an in-demand producer in his own right, but for his second solo album, all he wanted was to pen a paean to his studio heroes of yesteryear.
Their new albums, Auerbach's Waiting on a Song and Booker's Witness, mark evolutions from their blues-rock pasts, injecting more soul and personality into the mix. They're both still striving, albeit with different goals in mind. And both albums are richer for it.
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To some Tampa scenesters, Benjamin Booker — Hillsborough High School, class of 2007 — will always be a local at heart. But the truth is he decamped to New Orleans well before his self-titled 2014 debut, and went even further for his new follow-up — Mexico City, a place where he cleared his mind to write new music for Witness.
Perhaps as a result of all this traveling, Witness is exploratory and more evocative than Booker's occasionally one-note debut — though some of its raw grit is still present, mostly in his exhausted, put-upon vocals. The weight of expectation rests hard on Booker's lungs — the truth is heavy, he sings at one point — and "I give them everything to keep from going under," he adds on Believe. But he keeps coming back to the mic to push through the anguish, delivering songs bound to resonate with the drunk and despondent 'round about 2 a.m.
"It's the same thoughts that leave a man with no home," he moans on the rusty, Ben Harperish Motivation. "Can I find something better? Am I fated to roam?"
But just because the blues are more front-and-center here than on Benjamin Booker doesn't mean Booker has completely abandoned his rockier side. The album opens with Right On You, a feral chunk of electricity fat with T. Rex and Thin Lizzy riffs; it closes with Carry, an anxious, spidery alternative song that clocks in under a tidy two minutes. The Low End Blues paddles in a pool of sleazy low-end boogie, and Off the Ground starts with a minute of weary acoustic guitars before exploding into a fireball of vicious punk.
But the main thing that stands out about Witness is its depth, and all the strings, handclaps, tambourines and gospelly pianos jittering around beneath the fuzz. There is a syrupy lushness to Believe and vintage soul twang to Overtime; both as a result feel timeless. And the standout title track, featuring Staples in the background and the chorus, is a holistic gospel takedown of a society in which "the whole damn nation's trying to take us down" and "everybody that's brown can get the f--- on the ground."
Booker's voice remains unpolished, more textured than tuneful and melodic. But Witness brings listeners into the room with him, and that realness accounts for a lot — especially those locals who have shared many a room with him so far.
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Veering from the pained truths of Witness to the studied, polished homage that is Auerbach's Waiting on a Song can be jarring. But in its own way, Waiting on a Song aspires to be just as authentic.
Auerbach roped in country-rock veterans like John Prine, Duane Eddy, Jerry Douglas, Pat McLaughlin and the Time Jumpers' Dennis Crouch as collaborators, aiming to recreate and revive the sunny studio magic of the '60s and '70s. He mostly succeeds; throughout the album's breezy 32-minutes, you can hear influences like the Searchers and Everly Brothers, Dusty Springfield and Neil Diamond.
As calculated as such a pastiche may seem, there's also such an unexpected, wide-eyed purity in Auerbach's voice that it's hard to hold it against him. The opening title track chimes to life with an acoustic guitar, bouncing bass, clickety-clack percussion and even a flute (!); Malibu Man's high and hopeful strings and Stax-like horns swing and stomp in the most hopeful way.
Unlike with the Black Keys, where Auerbach can really lean into his fiery guitar and vocals, this album shows Auerbach more restrained and disciplined as both a singer and a producer. On Shine On Me, it is guest star Mark Knopfler's pristine guitar that shimmers and flutters above all else. King of a One Horse Town and Undertow luxuriate in smoky retro soul; Cherrybomb adds a layer of psychedelic funk. Through it all, Auerbach's voice is softer, purer, more yielding, often swaddled in reverb — it is the music he aims to have shine, not his superstar rock-singer ego.
Given Auerbach's vintage Nashville fetish, it's a little surprising the album never feels like a country pastiche. The jaunty Livin' In Sin and Show Me come somewhat close, but could just as easily be bubblebum pop with a cheeky splash of countrypolitan cologne. Even the folksy Never In My Wildest Dreams ends up skipping along a bed of bright horns.
If Auerbach's primary goal was for Waiting on a Song to feel timeless — and given the decades-spanning careers of his collaborators, you have to assume it was — then mission accomplished. But it's also a crisp and efficient collection of spot-on musicianship with some pretty good hooks to boot. If he brings a little of that back to the Black Keys, watch out.
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.