Put the earbuds to bed and roll out the woofers! We pit two new releases against one another, give’em both a spin and decide who won the week. This is Album WAR!
Benjamin Booker’s latest release, Witness, finds the dead ringer for Jesse Pinkman’s raspy voiced friend from Breaking Bad with a sustain life and enthusiasm that past efforts may have waned in. Wisely trimmed to a tight ten tracks, Witness comes across inviting, without stretching itself further than his talents allow.
While Booker never attempts to reinvent the wheel, he never really has to as the blues riffs that lead tracks like “Slow Drag Under” and “Truth is Heavy” do well to showcase his strengths. This limited palette does begin to wear thin by the time the album reaches the similarly paced “Overtime”.
There is an honest vulnerability throughout the album that plays fearless and inspiring. Lyrics like “I just want to believe in something, I don’t care if it’s right or wrong. I just wasn’t to believe in something, I can’t make it on my own.” come across all the more authentic with Booker’s dedicated minimalism throughout the recording process.
The title track is a chorus-minded buzzing sermon that carries its weight along with the rest of the album. It’s fun, gospel-like narrative, the hand clapping, and the call and response refrains would come off forced in other, less capable hands. The dynamic tonal shift that explodes midway through the aptly titled, “Off the Ground”, may come off as too little too late after ambling through safer blues riffs for several tracks, but it’s actually just enough to make listeners want more- a key principal of minimalism in the first place.
An unassuming release that never lingers long enough to grow weary, Witness is a both a competent modern blues rock release and a DIY garage band at the same time but rarely on the same track. Integration of Benjamin Booker’s best halves is a taunting promise that always just out of reach across its ten tracks.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Standout Track: “All Was Well” – A minute fifty-three cannonball run with no brakes. Booker breaks out his distortion pedal, flirting with the same minimalist perfection the Strokes once knew.
Hopeless Fountain Kingdom
Facing up a potential sophomore curse, Halsey has her work cut out for her with Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. Following the well-received, Badlands, Halsey is determined to prove she is not a disposable flash in the pan but a competent artist that critics would do best not to forget. An exercise in stepping outside of her comfort zone, which has varying levels of success. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is an ambitious project that should be applauded. Although, you may want to hold your ovation until after the opening “Prologue”; an overly pretentious Romeo and Juliet narration that smacks of some cloying attempt to tack on some loose conceptual motif where this isn’t one.
The damage is limited with the following “100 Letters” and “Eyes Closed” returning her signature sound to the forefront, the later an assured track on a future ‘greatest hits’ release. If there is a thematic tie throughout Hopeless Fountain Kingdom it is danceable self-flagellation. We should be so lucky that Halsey is determined to establish herself even further as an artist in a field where talent isn’t always a prerequisite. However, frequently wallowing in regret and judgment become a maudlin chore as the album grows longer.
Halsey stumbles when she attempts to reach a more marketable and listenable entry, resulting in uninspired lyrics and safe arrangements in “Heaven in Hiding” that exist solely to provide a hook. Her guest tracks fare no better.
She is best served when she allows herself room to have a modicum of fun. The rap verses she lays out on retro-Miami-style “Don’t Play” succeeds in flexing new muscles because she does not take herself as serious as in other tracks like the piano ballad, “Sorry”, which proves less stirring and more suffocating. The heavy industrially-tinged dance track “Angel on Fire” wallows in the same pity, a constant wet blanket that prevents it from the greatness it deserves.
Hopeless Fountain Kingdom proves less about transgressing her debut and more about breaking away from a creative cul-de-sac with the worlds she depicts. Every time she breaks from a reactive narrative and allows proactive songwriting to lead a given track the album gains a buoyancy that cans sometimes eludes her. The shifting back and forth between the two philosophies expands Halsey’s potential going forward but leaves Hopeless Fountain Kingdom somewhat disjointed for the effort.
Standout Track: “Alone” Charting new sound in the best possible way. The immediately radio-ready single allows the mainstream to come to her, being accessible without ever being reductive. A great showcase for a sparkling voice often sacrificed to a myriad of effects.
Winner of the Week: Halsey – Hopeless Fountain Kingdom
No shade on Benjamin Booker’s Witness, which was a real fun ride, but Halsey offers a much more comprehensive release. There was a easier, more liberated vitality to Witness and the burden of a sophomore release is evident on some of Hopeless Fountain Kingdom more overly-worked numbers. But when Halsey does hit her stride it is unrivaled. One benefit of releasing an album that some may criticize could have been trimmed for the benefit of tighter package, is that she allows herself enough runway to mine those gems and pad her average.
Peers, like artists Brooke Candy and even Lorde, have brought the mainstream to their artistry rather than adapting who they are to chase a wider audience. Halsey is a bird on a wire with Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. Charting new waters is de rigueur throughout her sixteen tracks. When done of her own accords the results are impressive; less so when it’s done out of compulsion. Regardless, Halsey’s latest release makes for a captivating argument to see what she is next capable of.