School’s back in, which doesn’t exactly mean summer’s over, but the summer musical drought is ending. And Benjamin Booker and Better Than Ezra — bands at opposite ends of the buzz scale — have new albums that merit attention.
Color/BlackColor/BlackBetter Than Ezra
Better Than Ezra is not cutting edge. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of its first hit, “Good,” and the band’s major label days with success on alternative rock radio stations erased any underground standing it might have had.
In recent years, it has also seemed unsure of how to continue as a recording entity, but the new “All Together Now” does what the band does best. It’s solid pop with all the sheen that producer Tony Hoffer — who’s also worked with Fitz and the Tantrums, M83, Beck and Silversun Pickups — could impart.
His production brightens up songs that already come on like frisky puppies, and they’re the sort of songs that suit singer Kevin Griffin best.
He’s not a balladeer, nor does his writing turn a flashlight on the dark corners of the heart. He’s a pop guy with a mass market touch who can craft songs that a lot of very different people can hear their lives in.
To his credit, the songs don’t sound like Better Than Ezra’s playing tug of war with the pop world, trying to drag it back to the band’s heyday. Nor does it try to act 20 years younger; instead, Ezra finds the place where its strengths and current sounds intersect.
The songs are fundamentally simple but full of energizing sound, whether it’s an echoed “hey” or a one-off guitar fill or a bouncy voice part — anything to continually freshen the track.
The current love of new wave textures are present here, though again, not so much that they make the album sound like their chasing the new thing. That sort of balance mutes any drama and buzz, but it also keeps Better Than Ezra in the game.
New Orleanian Benjamin Booker is a national sensation with a very low profile here. He moved to New Orleans from Florida in 2012 and played primarily small gigs, but his raw, electric blues got the attention of ATO Records — who signed him — and Jack White, who took Booker on tour as his opening act for part of his tour.
Booker’s self-titled debut album hints at the power of his live show, but it also makes it easier to hear what makes him special.
When Booker opened for The Drive-By Truckers at the Civic Theatre during Jazz Fest this year, he and drummer Max Norton pounded out a punk version of the blues with his heavily distorted guitar defining the sound with its snarl. The blues give his music a form, but as one song flows into the next, his show is a celebration of the power of rock ’n’ roll’s most primal elements — a pounding drum, a heavy guitar, and a voice hoarse from passion and whiskey. The music is banging him around and vice versa.
Booker goes toe to toe with rock ’n’ roll on his album as well, and his songs don’t vary so radically from one another to prevent some blur from setting in. He does pay attention to the album’s dynamics though, and inserts a classic soul ballad, “Slow Coming,” after three hot, high-energy tracks and follows the pounding rave-up “Have You Seen My Son” with a hushed, fragile opening verse of “Spoon Out my Eyeballs,” before the song slowly revs back up to the album’s freight train momentum.
In a time when computers, keyboards and turntables are almost ubiquitous in music, it’s nice to hear someone fly the flag for ragged guitars. Booker doesn’t sound retro or reactionary. His raw attack is tied to the urgency in his voice, which is on the edge of failing throughout. Booker sings “Have You Seen My Son” with the jitters, as if the sound, his thoughts and electricity are flowing through him in equal measure, and he’s struggling to maintain control. The album never goes over the top, and it’s exciting as he plays on that edge.
Alex Rawls writes about music in New Orleans. He can be reached at MySpiltMilk.com.