When the political upheaval of 2016 occurred, many of the culturally inclined reached for the silver lining of “at least tough times make good art.” While the validity and value of that statement can be debated, the summer of 2017 has brought two albums with a punk/rock version of soul that doesn’t shy away from politics, but also makes you move.
Benjamin Booker, Witness
Benjamin Booker’s eponymous first album earned virtually universal music-press praise, and his second release, Witness, has likewise been enthusiastically received. “Right on You” opens with an uncanny tribute to Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” before swinging into T-Rex swagger, albeit with more grit than glitter; “The Slow Drag Under” has a distorted guitar line, slinky beat and breathy vocal that recall Prince. But Booker’s love for rock ’n’ roll is surpassed by his love of blues and soul. The title track is a rock-gospel lament blessed with a guest appearance by the mighty Mavis Staples, whose voice carries the uplift and wisdom that is her family trademark and helps provide a balance to Booker’s raw desperation: “Thought that we saw that he had a gun/Thought that he looked like he started to run.” Booker’s music bears the weight of contemporary issues, but it’s also lifted by a search for solutions to—or at least an understanding of—them.
Algiers, The Underside of Power
Algiers’ self-titled debut album created a buzz with its unlikely collision of noise guitars with an Einstürzende Neubauten sound, Temptation-style vocals and house party beats. Their follow-up disc, The Underside of Power, continues bending genres and making statements.
Beats and a megaphone diatribe open up the first track, “Walk Like a Panther”, with an echo like empty city streets. It then breaks into a stripped-down disco beatbox and Franklin Fisher’s vocals, which have the raw passion of old-school soul but the flow of rap. It’s the sound of a battle cry from the ruins, which could be said about much of The Underside of Power. “Cleveland” blends collaged gospel vocal loops with distorted Afrika Bambaataa-style beats. The title track opens with a lo-fi drum machine buzz reminiscent of Suicide, with whispered vocals incanting, “It’s not a matter of fate/It’s just a question of time/And we all fall down.” Then it burns into the handclaps, shimmying beat and go-go guitars of something they would have danced in the streets to during the summer of ’68—the content of a political speech with the hook of a hit single.
Witness and The Underside of Power unite message and messenger—and you can’t help but listen.
Benjamin Booker | Witness ★★★★✩
Algiers | The Underside of Power★★★★★