The third time’s the charm, and for Detroit native Brendan Benson, that’s certainly the case with his third studio release, the affable and winsome The Alternative to Love. Only three years after his Lapalco got rave reviews, Benson’s back (it was six years between releases last time) with more songs that sound far cheerier than they really are—there’s an undercurrent of failed relationship and love gone awry that inform most of these songs.
The new album does a great job of spotlighting Benson’s talents in the studio—aside from some drum/percussion help from Matt Aljian along with several guest background vocal cameos from others, this is all Brendan and he’s a one-man band. Further, these songs are all his (the last release sported several collaborations with Jason Falkner). The production (courtesy of the expert Tchad Blake, who also mixed the album) is crisp and clean, with instruments well-separated and easy to distinguish. Overall, it’s more of the same—that type of friendly guitar-driven pop that has won Benson critical accolades and a devoted fan following. Benson’s pleasant voice is the focal point throughout—it’s not overpowering, but it’s endearing all the same, and, like the music itself, a very fun listen.
There’s an amiable simplicity to Benson’s songs that translates to likeability. He still has a strong case of what I termed on the last CD as “rhyme-it is”—an affliction that forces lyrical rhyming, often beyond the dictates of good sense. However, I think most fans are willing to give Brendan the benefit of the lyrical doubt—perhaps because he comes across as so sincere and able to write songs that win your heart.
The new CD opens with the upbeat guitars of “Spit It Out”, which features strong bass guitar lines and wonderful chorus harmonies amid semi-nonsensical lyrics that challenge one to say what’s on his or her mind, while challenging the listener with rhymes like “stop it, pop it, drop it” etc.
“Cold Hands (Warm Heart)” is another warm, generous winner of a song, sporting a melody that seems familiar from the first listen. Here Benson is dictating the sad end of a relationship that tried and failed: “And it really shouldn’t be this hard / You know it really shouldn’t be / And if we can only take it this far / Then I hate to say it, but it’s obvious / I’m telling you girl, there’s no future for us.”
Benson’s guitar work is complemented by his fine talents on the synth keyboard. This aspect is on good display with another strong song, “Feel Like Myself”, a musical berating of a fair-weather friend by a hard luck case who has emerged from bad times proud and ready to feel like himself again.
My favorite track here is the title song, which starts out as a simple acoustic ballad and then bursts with a harmonic shift into something far funkier and infectious as anything. It’s another rhyming examination of a relationship, pondering possible options to come: “Maybe this time it’s too late / We could make a move or we could wait / Maybe she will understand / And not expect too much from one man / Well maybe she can / or maybe she can’t.” The uber-catchy coda refrain declares that he goes on “forever in search of the alternative to love.”
Benson switches gears with “The Pledge”, a retro-styled song (heavy on the treble wall of sound) with an opening that sounds like a distant cousin to Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”. The vocals are a bit recessed, and the surrounding music has bits that date back in sound to the 1950s and 1960s, sweeter, simpler eras that reflect the promised love and dedication of the lyrics.
Several songs on Lapalco were a reflection of bittersweet thoughts. The same flavor can be found on “Them and Me”, a balladic dissection of a complex friendship. Benson’s folk-style delivery is accented by minor guitar and organ riffs, and there are nice background vocals from Tiffany and Faith Gazic, as well as a fine guest harmonica from Chris Plum.
“Biggest Fan” starts out promisingly with piano and vocals but soon digresses into a song that, while still has its moments, sounds vaguely derivative of some of the other stronger tunes here.
The sweet and catchy ballad that is “Flesh and Bone” (a musical hybrid of “Macarthur Park” crossed with the earlier track “The Alternative to Love”) is partly undone by such lyrics as: “little lamb that you are / you’ve wandered too far / and you can’t find your car.” If you can ignore the oft insipid lyrics, this is another great song.
Writing catchy songs that never seem very traditional seems to come naturally to Mr. Benson. In the past, he rarely fashioned a repeating chorus (listen to the verse without chorus structure of “What I’m Looking For” and you’ll hear what I mean). However, this time around, while still not quite as traditional as others, he occasionally manages a chorus here and there. One can be found in the upbeat “Get It Together”—about yet another relationship hanging in the balance under the musical microscope.
Benson definitely has his friendship/relationship issues. “Gold Into Straw” finds him plotting the death of a spurious friend who has double-crossed him. Yet this vitriol is disguised inside a tune with pleasant harmonies—as such, it far less acid than it is. “What I’m Looking For” is a bit of discontented self-examination in song, and the CD closes with “Between Us”, a not-terribly cheery song about restlessness, depression and general malaise about relationships and life (that was inspired by a woman’s post break-up answering machine message).
While Benson has achieved some notoriety and success lately (relative to what he’s been through before), he still aches from things like being abandoned by his father, and the recent death of the grandfather that raised him. As such, there’s not a lot of happiness in his current introspective crop of pop songs (even his publishing company is called “Glad Sad Music”).
Still, his music is way endearing, reflecting a deceptive simplicity that wins you over in short time. He’s talented and without airs, and that genuine down-to-earth feel comes across in his music. And music is his life.
Benson is keeping busy these days. In addition to writing and recording his own songs, he’s producing other bands (notably Blanche and The Greenhorns), and has completed another album’s worth of songs in collaboration with fellow Motown homeboy Jack White (for possible release later this year). He also intends to play guitar backing up The Waxwings on their upcoming summer tour, and has another side band project (this one with Dean from the Waxwings) entitled “The Stiff Tissues”.
Fans will be pleased with The Alternative to Love, and Benson’s easy way with melody might deliver some of these new songs to greater exposure through commercial or soundtrack use. The third release continues along the musical road paved by One Mississippi and Lapalco, and the charms of the talented Brendan Benson make that ride a pleasant journey.
// Notes from the Road
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