The gap between the release of Brendan Benson’s underrated third full length, 2006’s ‘Alternative To Love’ and 2009’s ‘My Old, Familiar Friend’ seemed far longer than three years. It’s not like Benson hadn’t kept himself busy in the interim, of course, since after the release of ‘The Alternative To Love’, he recorded with Jack White as part of The Raconteurs.
‘My Old, Familiar Friend’, his fourth solo release (recorded in 2007, between the two Raconteurs albums, but not released until August 2009), in places, treads some very familiar ground. Benson chooses to bring little to no influence from his stints with the Raconteurs to the table, marking a very distinct difference between that band and his solo releases. Whereas The Raconteurs provides Benson with an excuse to be a little edgy, ‘My Old, Familiar Friend’ celebrates his many 70s power-pop influences and, in places, proves a much smoother listening experience than the bulk of his previous solo outings. Aptly titled, this album feels like a familiar friend even upon early listens. If anything though, Brendan sounds more confident than ever before, with the quirky, disjointed elements of his ‘One Mississippi’ debut left far behind.
The first couple of tracks could have been slotted in somewhere on Benson’s earlier outings, but that’s not to say they’re not memorable at all, in fact, the opening track ‘A Whole Lot Better’, is quite the opposite. It begins with some great old fashioned keyboard fuzz, before breaking into a decent slab of upbeat pop rock. The drumming is especially tight and the guitars give the piece plenty of drive, but it’s the bass and keyboards which are the most striking. Throughout the four minutes, the track is coloured by lots of early eighties keyboard work – the kind that any number of power pop bands from the period – Shoes, Paul Collins’ Beat, 20/20 et al – would have been more than proud to showcase. That bassline though – upfront and jaunty – is absolutely glorious. Once Benson throws in a couple of hooks, the most notable coming in somewhere toward the end, the track proves to be a more than solid opening statement. ‘Eyes On The Horizon’, meanwhile, is a little more laid back, led by some great electric piano. The mid-paced pop/rock ditty allows Benson more room vocally and his distinctive (and slightly treated vocal) fits the arrangement very well. Once again, the chorus is a winner, but it’s in very much a tried and tested formula and will strike a familiar chord with those familiar with Benson’s previous releases.
It’s upon first hearing of ‘Garbage Day’ you’ll realise that this album is something special. A retro tune, it could be seen as a power pop take on 60s soul, being led by punchy rhythms and fleshed out by strings. The snare drum lays down a steady beat, under which the very warm bass guitar and electric piano pick up the bulk of the arrangement. There are hints of acoustic and electric guitars throughout, but the track could have almost worked entirely without them. For a man with a voice far from smooth at times, Benson lends a suitably restrained vocal, too. In all, a definite album high point – maybe even a career high point. ‘Gonowhere’ is similarly polished, but far more in the singer songwriter mould. The late 70s keyboards would be enough to make Greg Hawkes smile, although they’re in a style which may not appeal to all. The piano adds some great flourishes, while a harmony filled chorus has a certain level of subtlety which means it registers far later than some of the other hooks present on this disc. Within the singer-songwriter stylings and multi-layered arrangement, there are traces of the mighty Todd Rundgren and maybe even a dash of Jeff Lynne, but it’s all served in Benson’s own sense of style.
‘Feel Like Taking You Home’ brings the album’s only real curve-ball. Nowhere as smooth as previous tracks, there are definite new wave influences at play, which possibly owes much to the fact the arrangement is almost guitarless. The focus – like ‘Eyes On The Horizon’ and ‘Gonowhere’ – is totally on the keyboards, but unlike the aforementioned tracks there’s a tension and all round edginess building throughout. Interestingly, parts of the vocal melody are reminiscent of The Raconteurs’ ‘Broken Boy Soldiers’ but that’s as far as any comparison between any of Benson’s solo work and his band activity goes. ‘You Made a Fool Out of Me’, an acoustic-based track, at first shows the harsh edges in Brendan’s vocal style, but before long a piano and strings flesh out the arrangement. It’s a nicely written piece which has hints of Mike Viola during his more reflective moments. It doesn’t really stretch into any unexpected territory beyond it’s opening, and compared to a few other choice cuts on ‘My Old, Familiar Friend’ it isn’t quite as essential listening, but at just three and a half minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
‘Misery’ is absolutely classic power pop which could have been from the late 70s/early 80s golden period, leading to a tune which could have been part of the Nick Lowe back catalogue. Clanky guitar chords, a pounding drum and a layer of organ open the tune in style, before falling away to make room for Benson’s lead vocal. The verses are relatively ordinary, but once the chorus chimes in with British Invasion influences followed by fantastic ‘doo doo’ vocal, it becomes instantly loveable. ‘Poised and Ready’ offers another slice of classic drum-led pop/rock with all the relevent key changes; imagine Jellyfish’s noisiest side meeting a pre-county music Ben Kweller and you get the picture. The drum sound is crisp, the pianos hard-struck, the staccato rhythms all adding up to a track dripping with attitude. You’ll have heard it all before by this point, naturally, but it still brings plenty of power pop thrills.
The Jellyfish influences carry through even farther on ‘Don’t Wanna Talk’ with its marching on the spot feel and ‘la la la’ choruses. This is a stupidly infectious tune, and Benson knows it, with its simplicity being its greatest strength. Each of the musicians brings something to the table: the drums provide the backbone, but looking at the smaller details, there’s some great rhythm guitar work and more organ hiding the back of what eventually becomes a very busy mix. Brendan is not responsible for your singing this on the bus or in the supermarket; play this track at your own peril.
Rounding out the album, neither ‘Lesson Learned’ or ‘Borrow’ show any sign of slacking off or being consigned to the “filler material” file. ‘Lesson Learned’s simple arrangement and electric piano have a certain retro cool, which when matched with Benson’s relaxed vocal style sounds very effective, especially once a few harmonies creep in. ‘Borrow’ meanwhile, finishes the album with a mid-paced number full of jangling guitars and quirky keyboards. Similarly to the way ‘My Old, Familiar Friend’ began, the mood is similar to a lot of the best numbers on Benson’s three previous records, making it a track guaranteed to please a lot of fans.
Eleven songs: all good, most of ’em great, with no filler. In anyone’s book, that makes for a potential classic. The best songs on 2002’s ‘Lapalco’ may still represent some of the artist’s strongest work as a songwriter but, as a complete body of work, ‘My Old, Familiar Friend’ could easily be Benson’s most consistent release. Those unfamiliar could do far worse than pick up ‘My Old, Familiar Friend’ as a jumping off point, especially since not only does it represent Benson in a superb light, it’s also one of the best power pop records of the late 00’s. Supposedly, these tracks were culled from a much larger volume of work; if those left behind are anywhere near as good as those which made the final draft, there’s more great listening to be had sometime.
December 2009/January 2012