Brendan Benson: Sweet, clean American sound
Courtney Eckerle | Thursday, September 17, 2009
Singer/songwriter and Michigan native Brendan Benson has probably become most well known as Jack White’s wingman in The Raconteurs, although he had three intelligent and innovative, as well as critically acclaimed, solo albums before joining the quartet. “My Old, Familiar Friend,” his newly released album, spotlights for the first time his ability to shine solo, illuminating a unique voice that was seemingly only stifled by White, no offense to indie’s warbling demigod. Benson brings this effortless voice to this latest solo act, one that could be nearly as haunting as Rufus Wainwright if not for his decidedly buoyant sound. This venture also seems far more finessed than his earlier works, and nods not only to 1970’s rock with analog production, layered vocals and ELO synths, but also to 50’s beach cruising tunes, 80’s hard guitar and 90’s hooks and pace.
“My Old, Familiar Friend” is full of dynamic and clever- yet clear- lyrics that the songsmith focuses on personal quests, that vary between love (gained and lost) and lust, settling and ambition. His witty writing deals with these issues with a wink and a smile, like on the melancholy track “Garbage Day,” that has lyrics like, “And if she throws her heart away / I’ll be there on garbage day.” This cohesive style begs the question of who the real storyteller was in The Raconteurs.
“A Whole Lot Better,” the first track, is a bouncy organ riff that for the first few seconds sounds like it’s straight off of a Racontours album. Then it segues into something that has that 90’s pace and catchy pop-rock sound that calls back to Elvis Costello and other Brits like The Kinks, with a sprinkling of the Americana blues and motown his previous band seemed to favor. Lyrics, “I fell in love with you / And out of love with you / And back in love with you / All in the same day,” seem to echo the swoop of a melody that is almost sure to incite an infectious Snoopy dance.
Added wisdom from Benson’s newfound notoriety peeks through in his lyrics, for instance, the somber “You’ll Make A Fool Out of Me” shows how a lover can belittle and exploit fame at the same time. Similarly, “Poised and Ready” shows his eager yet apprehensive feelings towards fame and success with lyrics, “And people you once trusted / Are now looking so disgusted / And they’re waiting anxiously / For you to fall.”
“Feel Like Taking You Home” has a steady disco, dance floor beat that would have Madonna envious. It moves along with an eerie, fast pace that creates a nervous atmosphere – in a good way. Opposite of that is the rumbling drum storm “Don’t Wanna Talk” that turns sunny pop anthem that could be straight off the “Clueless” soundtrack, which of course, is so like totally 1995. Benson’s range on the album is risky for sure – it could come off schizophrenic, but it’s a bet that pays off since the songs somehow reflect off each other like a musical prism, one that catches your ear with unique contemporary spins on previous musical milestones.
Benson was asked to sing vocals on “Free & Freaky” for the Stooges’ 2007 album, “The Weirdness,” and Iggy Pop has been quoted as saying, “I wanted a sweet, clean, effortless American voice on that particular chorus, and Brendan had the voice.” Brendan Benson’s vocal showcasing “My Old, Familiar Friend” is a pop rock gem in a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of way. There is no doubt -the dude is talented, but the question that remains is if he can capture the same kind of success as a solo artist that he had with The Raconteurs.