There are moments during Benjamin Booker’s sophomore album Witness where you almost feel the mud between your toes, wistfully strolling along the mouth of the bayou with Booker playing the role as tour guide. Sadly these moments are as fleeting as a sandgator sighting in a Louisiana summer.
Certainly the racially charged themes so wonderfully painted in the acclaimed debut offering Benjamin Booker exist in Witness, but rousing war-cries have been replaced with jangle-legged lamentations.
The album lacks a hit. Right On You is certainly no Violent Shiver and Witness, while pretty enough, lacks the outright poignancy of The Future is Slow Coming. Songs tend to meander into one another, starting slowly and finishing abruptly. A fast song finishes slow, a slow song finishes fast. Witness is not exactly uninspired, but not especially spunky either.
Which is not to say this is a bad album, or even that his sound hasn’t evolved enough. The title track is an earnest devotional, accompanied by the most authentic sounding of church choirs led by the unmissable Mavis Staples, and a piano that sounds like it’s about 150 years old. The charming Truth is Heavy is another highlight; a murky hop-along string pluckin’ riff shadows the album’s most poignant lyrics, and graceful, understated backing vocals. There is much goodwill to be found in these songs.
That goodwill is strained during the one-paced Overtime and completely spent in the abominable Off The Ground. The album whimpers to its uninspiring conclusion with the frankly boring Carry and the pretentious epilogue All Was Well. If you only have time to listen to half of this album, make it the first half.
Certainly Booker has added some texture and layering to his sound, but his Betadine-deprived vocals work to better effect against the punk-blues discipline of Benjamin Booker than the swampy hymns of Witness.