On their debut full-length The Art of Disappointment, The Benjamins play the sort of gloriously big and noisy arena pop-rock that seems to be all the rage these days. Like Creeper Lagoon, Weezer, the Get Up Kids, etc., The Benjamins fill their power-pop songs with crunchy guitars, catchy hooks and sensitive-guy emoting that may or may not be heartfelt. Their music is bombastic and room-filling, the sort of rock that sounds better the louder you play it.
Hailing from Milwaukee, the trio have a snappy sound and memorable hooks, but don’t go quite far enough in either direction to make up for the fact that their lyrics are remarkably wishy-washy. They go back and forth between relatively sincere shy-guy-in-love songs and songs that embody a trend which, to me, is more irritating than just about anything going on in music today. That would be the “look at how clever we can be”, irony-soaked shtick. Somehow the slackerisms of Pavement gave way to a “how jaded can we seem” race, and it’s annoying « mostly because Pavement had wit and heart to go along with their slacker stance, whereas so many of the rockers of today think looking disaffected and bored is enough, that it’ll cover up for a lack of anything to say.
The Benjamins aren’t as bad as the worst of the offenders, but they’re on their way on tracks like “Wonderful” and “Riverwest Creeps”. The latter’s chorus is “I am an angel and quite the rockstar too / Did you ever in your life think you’d end up with someone like me?” It’s sarcastic, I suppose, but then again, who knows? Or take this line, from “Dr. Frank Was Right”: “Yesterday I had it figured out / You were gonna be mine / Now you love me more than toast and less than a staple gun.” Lyrics that are meant to be funny, but aren’t, end up seeming as out of place in the middle of a pop song as a power drill in the refrigerator. Your reaction isn’t positive, or even really negative, just confused, like “what is this doing here?
The Benjamins’ lyrics ignite that confused reaction most of the way through The Art of Disappointment. It’s hard to figure out what they mean or why they’re saying it. “Dr. Frank Was Right” is the perfect embodiment of the dilemma that is The Benjamins. On one level it is a touching song about lost love, sung in just the right tone by lead singer Jay, with noisy guitars accentuating the message. But then there’s lines like the “staple gun” one, odd clunkers that just serve as a reminder that even when they sound like they’re being serious, maybe they’re not. Which just adds to listeners’ puzzlement, really. There’s places throughout The Art of Disappointment where it’s easy to just turn it up and shout along, but then a line, a theme or a vocal smirk will come by and crash the mood entirely, making your face form into a permanent expression of “huh?”
At one point on the album, there’s the line “Be careful, you just may say something”, and, unfortunately it comes across as the band’s credo. The sad fact is, when they start to say something honest, their music really works; they just don’t have guts enough not to counter every genuine feeling with a self-deprecating “joke”.