March 25, 2005


Brendan Benson.jpg

A confident craftsman coming into his own

The rock landscape is littered with young singer/songwriters who were quickly cast aside in the mid-to-late 1990s by major labels that had no purpose and/or patience for them.

What to do when spit out by the machine? In the case of Brendan Benson -- whose one-and-done relationship with Virgin Records produced the raw but promising debut, One Mississippi, in 1996 -- being left to his own devices proved a blessing.

After parting ways with Virgin, Benson used part of his second album advance money to fill a house in Detroit with vintage recording equipment. This allowed him to tinker enough to become a bit of a studio whiz, and re-emerge with a well-received indie album in 2002.

The best payoff yet to all of that appears to be his impressive new disc, The Alternative to Love, which could be as good an argument as any for labels to invest time in developing artists instead of lopping them off the roster after a poor-selling album: After all, it was released March 22 via the Virgin subsidiary V2 Records, bringing Benson full circle.

On this, his third record, Benson proves himself worthy of another crack at the big leagues. It is a precisely formulated record that runs the gamut from eminently hummable guitar pop (disc opener "Spit It Out" boasts the record's most unshakeable chorus) to more emotionally wrought pieces that find Benson searching deep within himself and his surroundings. Through it all, his production is engaging enough to keep the material from seeming heavy-handed, and just slick enough to avoid overriding the record's infectious DIY spirit.

The best example of all of these elements is "Feel Like Myself," a punchy number driven by steadily thumping drums, a whirling synthesizer and well-placed cymbal crashes. Underneath the bombast lies one of the album's many songs about personal trials: "Hard luck is all that I had . . . I was a sad and sorry case, but I turned about-face," Benson sings triumphantly.

Elsewhere, Benson offers a knowing nod to the Phil Spector brand of 1960s pop, with airy vocals and chimes ringing out prominently on the gushy love song "The Pledge." He then shows he can switch gears just as well by following it up with "Them and Me," a sparse, plaintive number sung over some melancholy keyboards and, later, some off-the-wall screeching noises.

Such range is the work of a confident craftsman coming into his own, but Benson hardly sounds satisfied. Near the end of the disc, Benson confides, "I don't know what I'm living for, I just know I want to live some more." Career-wise, he very well may have a new lease on life -- unless of course, his record company pulls the plug again.

Consider this a second chance of sorts -- for Benson, but even more so for the folks who sign his paychecks.

-- By George Henn

Posted by medleyville at March 25, 2005 08:52 PM