[16 August 2005]
Robbers on High Street
How hard can it be to create enjoyable hook-filled pop-rock? I mean really, how tough is it to sing intelligent, well-crafted lyrics? Well, if you visit the Warped tour, you might think that cloning has skipped right over loveably stupid sheep and gone straight for the mindless musicians of contemporary rock. Blimey, if I hear one more bleating emo band or another tuneless screamo act, I’m afraid I might just burst into the confetti of frustration!
It seems a simple task but after a survey of the crap that’s flooding the marketplace one thing seems painfully clear: pop is plenty hard. So, how does Brendan Benson make it all sound so easy?
My old pastor used to say that if it’s new, it’s probably not true; and if it’s true, it’s likely not new. Brendan Benson isn’t doing anything particularly original. Instead, he’s taken the time-tested templates from power pop and new wave rock past, and used them to paint his own unique portrait.
He took the stage wearing an unassuming plain white t-shirt and backed by a three-piece band. He started his show with the chugging “Between Us” from the new Alternative to Love disc. Benson didn’t say much or move a whole lot during his set, but his songs were consistently catchy, more than enough to hold our undivided attention.
It shouldn’t come as any great surprise that Benson has also recorded with Jack White of the White Stripes. Like Benson, White realizes that great rock & roll doesn’t come out of attempts to reinvent the wheel. Both men have spent plenty of time in the Motor City, a place where wheels are built to roll rather than be uselessly reconfigured. White has mined blues and country to place his personalized spin on contemporary rock, whereas Benson has looked to more contemporary sources to create his unique, melodic style.
He might just have easily titled his new CD Alternative to Lame-o, because its simple and simply infectious sound offer an oasis away from lifeless pseudo-rock. Benson is not a particularly distinctive vocalist, nor is his band an instrumental powerhouse, but what he may lack in charisma is more than made up for in intelligence and sincerity.
You can’t pin any one stylistic formula on Benson. He’s comfortable doing anything, whether inhabiting something synth-driven like “Feel Like Myself”, singing over the acoustic guitar riff of “Alternative to Love”, or even losing himself within the atmospheric vibe of “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)”. The variety of his work is impressive, and he fits into public radio play lists just as easily as he suits the needs of modern rock stations.
Benson’s lyrics are primarily about love, and while his words are rarely downright depressing, they’re not exactly the inspirational food for positive-thinking types either. Even when he sings about feeling good, this mood is tied to the post-breakup of “Feel Like Myself”, where his tale requires a trip through the valley of the shadow of death before peaceful, still waters can be reached.
This ragged but right attitude is expressed again throughout the title track of Alternative to Love, in which he sings, “maybe I’m just damaged goods.” But instead of focusing on the damage already done Benson uses this song to turn his complete attention toward how he can do things differently - and hopefully better—the next time around.
You’re left with the lingering impression that Brendan Benson is a pretty regular guy just trying to make sense of everyday life. He doesn’t attempt this investigation while begging for the audience’s pity, however, the way too many mopey modern emo bands so half-heartedly do. Instead, he reacts to his ugly emotional inner pain with songs of transcendent musical beauty.
Robbers on High Street opened the show with a set of British pop-inspired American music. Front man Ben Trokan sang his way through a set of ‘70s piano pop songs, mixed with equal measures of modern day Coldplay and Keane. At other times, this band’s sound was a little closer to its New York contemporaries the Strokes. Yet during “Beneath the Trees”, Trokan came off a little bit like a latter-day John Lennon.
It’s hard to typecast a typical Benson/Robbers audience member. This crowd looked like the kind who are left cold, as well as out in the cold, by the routine sameness of contemporary rock. But these folks did not appear ready to settle for the predictability of classic rock. Both Benson and Robbers On High Street create contemporary songs, which manage not to forsake classic pop and rock values. During this show, oddly enough, it was easy to fall into a sense of déjà vu over a song you’d never even heard before. That’s a strange emotion, but these two acts conjured it up - often.
Benson’s Alternative to Love offers an alternative to lame music. Who would have predicted that we’d now need an alternative to alternative? I mean, isn’t that a double negative, or something? But given the sorry state of alternative music, Benson gives us a refreshing old-new approach to style and sound. He doesn’t even need to try and be on the cutting edge, because he’s inherently, consistently sharp. And that makes Mr. Benson a most unlikely alternative, indeed.