The Insects Rule: The Under-Rated Power Pop of Brendan Benson*

The new Brendan Benson album, My Old, Familiar Friend is somewhat of a revelation. After years of being under the radar, he finally made some headway by being the first mate in Jack White's side project, The Raconteurs. (I say side project, but the Raconteur's are as fully realized a project as any other White has been involved with, or for that instance Benson). They have become his full time paying gig. But those who listen to the Raconteurs as just a White side project are missing something; the classicist power pop of Benson adds new dimensions to White's music. Likewise, Benson sounds revitalized on My Old Familiar Friend gaining confidence from the collaboration with a real "rock star." The title works as perfect description, because the record does feel like an old familiar friend (fitting firmly into the classic ranks of the poppier side of power pop), even though Benson tends to rock out a bit more than most power pop artists this side of Cheap Trick. What Benson brings to the table is a true love of the form. His songs might just be updated Romantic's sides for the Alterna-tween set, or at least that is who they might be marketed to, but such a marketing campaign would be a shame.

On his last album, The Alternative to Love, Benson's song writing was not as strong as on My Old Familiar Friend. He tended to rely on heavily Beatles-inspired melodies and often cliched lyrics and the record seemed a stronger piece, but suffered under the weight of basic power pop that didn't reflect the clever phrasing and lyrical drive of his earlier work which was effective because it was far more idiosyncratic. One Mississippi, released by Virgin in 1996 and pushed under the table, fully embraced its quirks. Benson reveled in songs about his horrible childhood ( "I'm Blessed"), suicide attempts ("Me Just Purely"), and the most significantly odd topic of his career -- the insects taking over the world ( "Insects Rule"). He continued in this vein on Lapalco stressing the troubles of love, but also finding time to be himself tackling the world of love with less of an everyman approach. The Alternative to Love was a denser record with few stand out tracks, but was effective in that it helped him grow into a writer that could create a record that relied on his strengths, namely idiosyncratic subject matter or a quirky perspective on matters of love, coupled with a pure appreciation for pop music. In fact, he seems to be traveling the same hoary ground that Nick Lowe did after Labour of Lust, growing as an artist while trying to find an audience. Of course, without the chart success. (I would even compare him to Matthew Sweet if the guitars mattered more to his music, but this is often keyboard driven fare with a definite British frame of reference.)

What remains impressive about Benson on My Old Familar Friend is his storytelling. Dealing with matters of love, he deftly brings something new to the table every single time. With strong songwriting and major label, yet indie-friendly production, he may finally get the shot he deserves. But even if it doesn't come and the new record remains a great lost secret like One Mississippi, Benson has developed a record that should appeal to any fans of great pop. Listen to "Misery" and try to tell me otherwise.

*This first appeared in a slightly different version on my Facebook page on October 12, 2009.


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