In "Our Spilt Milk" this week, our favorite things are new Thundercat and a preview of Benjamin Booker's new album.
Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner is one of the best bassists in the universe, but he is arguably better known as a goof than a god. His bromance with Eric Andre, his absurdist Adult Swim-style videos and the fact that he’s usually dressed like he’s on his way from a Renaissance fare to a cosplay convention only exacerbate the situation. When he takes Buku’s Ballroom stage at 7:30 on Friday, he’ll play off the weirdo vibes exuding from the festival’s motley fanbase, as well as his own. Shenanigans will abound.
Despite Bruner’s oddball uncle aura,, his second and third albums dealt with heavy subject matter. Apocalypse (2013) and The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam (2015) were both heavily influenced by the 2012 death of his close friend and collaborator Austin Peralta. Thundercat’s latest release, Drunk, is much lighter and more playful. The album basically starts on Track 2, "Captain Stupido,” when Bruner croons, “I feel weird / Comb your beard, brush your teeth / Still feel weird / Beat your meat, go to sleep.” From there, it descends into unprecedented levels of goofiness. On “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II),” for instance, he channels his inner cat and meows along over his instrumentals for a good portion of the song. When Bruner gets pensive—as he does on “Walk On By (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” and “The Turn Down (feat. Pharrell)”—it feels more political than personal.
Death is still present on Drunk, mostly near the end of the project, when Bruner seems to be coming down after a long night out. “Them Changes” reappears about two thirds of the way in, and the album gets gradually somber from there on out (the exception being “Drink Dat (feat. Wiz Khalifa),” which doesn’t belong anywhere near the rest of the album anyway). The final track, “DUI,” starts off with the ominous words “Sometimes you’re alive / Sometimes you are dead inside / With the time to read between the lines of life and death.” Even as he recovers from his trauma and maintains his signature silly theatrics, Bruner proves on Drunk that he is capable of capturing the entire spectrum of human emotion, sometimes all at once. (Raphael Helfand)
Benjamin Booker’s “Witness” is the first track from his upcoming album, Witness, due out June 2, and it doesn’t bring the fastball that much of his self-titled debut album showed in 2014. “Violent Shiver” and “Have You Seen My Son” strung together blues impulses with such kinetic fury that each word, line and guitar blast felt like a spontaneous reaction to the one before it, and much of the piety that often accompanies roots music was bumrushed out the door with punk swagger and enthusiasm. “Witness” isn’t that, beginning with the sonic framework of R&B gospel down the the voice of Mavis Staples. Booker’s guitar is AWOL until the outro, when it comes in like a telegraph coding out with wiry precision a message that doesn’t undo the song as much as deepen it.
Lyrically, the song is about the importance of being a witness to injustice, but the tension in his final notes underscores his own uncertainty of his message, even as he sing/raps it. That impulse is punk even if the energy isn’t, and once you think of the song in that light, Staples’ presence subtly feeds the sense that Booker has mixed emotions. Her gift as a singer of spirituals is the ability to make her gospel sound individual. Even when she sings conventional Christian doctrine, she does so as if the ideas make perfect sense to her personally. That DIY spirituality is right in line with Booker’s long-time musical aesthetic, and together they keep a musical and lyrical idea that seem awfully conventional on first listen from being commonplace. (Alex Rawls)