My Old, Familiar Friend

Brendan Benson

Echo, 2009

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Today, most people in America who have heard of Brendan Benson know him as “the other guy” in the Raconteurs with Jack White.  Those of us who knew him pre-Rac (pre-Jack?), however, knew him as a studio craftsman of the first order with a flair for retrophile alt-rock / power-pop.  His 2005 disc The Alternative To Love was in fact one of the more consistently entertainingly confections of that year.

His several-years-later follow-up shows a Raconteurs influence in the sense that it’s looser and thrashier in places, and overall a little bit less polished than The Alternative To Love.  But it’s still quintessentially Benson -- the punchlines arch, the melodies supple, the production searching for the sweet spot between lo-fi and fussy, with consistently retro tones featured in richly textured arrangements.

Most of Benson’s songs seem to take the form of rather biting dialogues between him and his lovers, in which they launch snarky sneak attacks of one sort or another against each other.  Benson seems to have had some bad experiences in that department -- or maybe it’s just more fun being snarky.

The opener is a perfect example, with its emphatic chorus of “I’ll feel a whole lot better / When you’re not around.”  Not to mention this tart little bridge: “I fell in love with you / And out of love with you / And back in love with you / All in the same day.”  Moody, is our Mr. Benson.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

You’re reminded immediately by the next track (“Eyes On the Horizon”) that one thing Benson does masterfully is arrange vocals.  Here he layers his own background vocals against his lead vocals, fattening up the sound and even creating a lilting call and response with himself.  It might seem a bit self-indulgent to construct a solo duet, but the end result is both technically clever and quite effective.

My Old, Familiar Friend finds Benson teaming with producer Gil Norton (Counting Crows, Pixies, Foo Fighters, Jimmy Eat World), who you would think might put a sonic stamp of his own on this album.  The thing is, Benson’s musical personality is so strong that in the end, sonically this album feels like The Alternative To Love II

This is true even where he does experiment; Alternative found him giving one track a flamboyant Motown arrangement, which he does again here with “Garbage Days,” putting big strings over a loping backbeat and ascending sing-songy couplets.  It sounds like a song that could have been written for the Supremes in 1964, until you get to the aggressively pathetic chorus, a sort of prequel to the Police’s “Can’t Stand Losing You”: “And if she throws her heart away / I’ll be there on garbage day / To sift through what’s left I guess / To sort through the loneliness / And I don’t mind if the neighbors can see me / I’ll take whatever I can get, it’s not easy.”

The rest of the ride is entertaining enough, even if it doesn’t add up to a big impact.  “Gonowhere” features analog synths fresh from a 1973 funk album decorating a twisted-inside-out Billy Joel piano ballad.  “Poised And Ready” is the Cars on a British Invasion kick.  “Don’t Wanna Talk” finds something kicking loose in the rhythm section, a garage-y tone that would likely make Jack smile.  And “Misery” – naturally enough in Benson’s upside-down world – has a pleasantly jaunty melody.

The thing is, even on those rare occasions when Benson loosens up and gets a little playful, these tunes have an unfortunate self-consciousness about them.  There’s no denying the consistency and artistry of this effort – every one of these tracks is a study in studio craftsmanship – but after a certain number of sardonic choruses over cleverly-constructed arrangements, you realize that what he’s actually built with his major-label budget and endless attempts to be clever is an emotional wall between himself and his audience.  For all its fussiness and smartest-kid-in-class efforts to impress, My Old, Familiar Friend is ultimately a rather distant album, full of smarts but deficient in heart.

Rating: B-

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© 2009 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Echo, and is used for informational purposes only.