Brendan Benson: Lapalco

Brendan Benson
Star Time International

The good news is that Brendan Benson is back. Six years later, this singer/songwriter returns with a winning sophomore collection of a dozen personal songs that are eclectic at times, but always charmingly unassuming and never less than a fun listen. Lapalco is a refreshing return to form.

Stories of record-label problems seem endemic to an industry unwilling to use anything other than bottom-line sales as an indicator of recognizing talent in artists. So I give you another: when Brendan Benson got word that Virgin Records was pulling the plug on the tour supporting his debut CD in 1996, the writing was on the wall. That promising debut, One Mississippi, had failed to set enough of the world on fire, even after getting almost unanimous praise from the music press. Thus executives at Virgin decided enough was enough. Patience wasn’t a part of this bargain; you couldn’t bank on promise. Without instantaneous results, this pop/rock career was toppled just as it was learning to stand.

The young talented Mr. Benson was puzzled. “I was devastated,” he said. “It was my dream — my first record. I was promised the world. So many things didn’t happen.” While critics loved him (and a groundswell of devoted fans were slowly catching on), his self-confidence was shattered. Whereas before he was a prolific songwriter, all of a sudden he started questioning everything.

“I got so into my own head, thinking, is this cool, are people going to think this is dumb?” he confessed. “Before I had a little mental audience that I wrote songs to, and they were very forgiving. It got replaced by managers and record executives telling me I’m not writing choruses.”

The resulting writer’s block, coupled with a long battle extricating himself from the clutches of a Virgin contract, made things tough. Seeking a change, Benson decided to move from Oakland, California back home. In the supporting surroundings of Detroit’s Belle Isle, Benson was able to conquer his self-doubts. He began writing again.

The results of those efforts are what became Lapalco. Part of Benson’s charm is his simple lyrical innocence paired with a homegrown musical sophistication, his love of rhymes that can make you groan and smile simultaneously, and the feeling that he operates well outside the norms of the formulaic music machine.

That youngster who once upon a time moved to Los Angeles with a tope of 30 original songs recorded on a dual cassette deck has grown some, but he hasn’t disappeared. He who friends affectionately call “the superman of four-track” continues to flourish, and there are layers upon layers of guitars and subtle touches throughout.

This CD opens with the very catchy “Tiny Sparks”, co-written with friend and fellow studio whiz Jason Falkner (who again, as on the first CD, lends a hand with several songs here). This is a fine example of the simplicity/naivety that endears Benson to the listener. It’s a story of someone not wanting to change, yet losing a woman because of it and not quite understanding why: “I’ve always been this way, never known any other way to feel / Got the right of way, and all of the others must yield / Now I’m naked and I’m in school, I can’t make it to the door.” The song sounds upbeat and catchy in contrast to the lyrical bewilderment, yet it works from the very first listen.

On the track “Folksinger”, we get a healthy dose of the fun affliction I shall term Benson’s rhyme-itis: “Every girl I made in the shade of the Esplanade I’ve saved in a song that I play when I’m afraid of a full-scale air raid from the choices that I’ve made. Every single day at 11 I’m home in bed in sleep heaven, alone ‘cuz my girl leaves at seven, ain’t got time for my bed-in, She said stop pretendin’, you’re not John Lennon.”

Benson does like to make it rhyme, but it doesn’t take away from the ideas he puts across. “What” is a winning track that tells the tale of a man usurped by another, seeing his girl laugh at the same jokes, fall for the same tricks he once used. “Eventually” examines the way relationships change us, as he ponders what he has wrought upon his girl, yet still makes an earnest plea for her to stick with him through the promise that things will get better eventually.

“You’re Quiet” sounds something like a synth-driven Cars song from the late ’70s, and lyrically explores the “misery loves company” theme: “You’re quiet, you don’t talk / You’re shut down and closed off / But you’re like me, feel the same / I’m Brendan, what’s your name / I’ve been a little bit down on my luck / I think you know where I’m coming from / I need a pickup and I don’t mean truck / I think you know where to get some.” “Life in the D” is a resigned look at coping with the hand life deals you, even if it seems beyond understanding.

This is a CD bursting with songs that seem to grow better with repeated listens. Perhaps the most infectious is “Good to Me”, wherein Benson discusses the merits of his humble yet trusty car (1980 Volvo, not a finned Cadillac), amplifier (a beat up Supro, not a Fender tweed deluxe) and girlfriend (true), respectively. A close second is the upbeat guitar-driven rocker “I’m Easy”, perhaps the only song wherein the Falkner flavor seems overly dominant (and that’s not a bad thing).

Personally, I am drawn to the bittersweet trilogy of personal songs that close the CD, perhaps a direct result of all the tribulations of the past few years and each of them a gem. Here Benson does a great job of working the home studio to get great results — a song like “Pleasure Seeker” seems simple, but is layered with subtle instruments and sounds (hint: hit the headphones). Lyrically, it’s an out-loud attempt at self-examination and explaining away the depression that makes him tired all the time: “And I’m just so far gone, I don’t know what planet I’m on / I wanna come down / ’cause I’ve taken it hard for so long / I don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong with me.” In “Just Like Me”, Benson sees himself as a hate-filled balloon spewing about the room, as he wants to break the trend of his anger, asking for help. His mastery of guitar sounds (very Beatle-esque here) is most impressive and reflects the anger and confusion of his feelings often better than the words.

“Jetlag” ends the CD with a sort of Harry Nilsson/keyboard and vocals vibe. This song is an intimate lashing out against the whole showbiz thing, as he went from the fair-haired boy of talent (“the boy has got the magic touch and he can’t ever lose”) very quickly to one who got bruised.

This is not your typical powerpop collection. Perhaps he still doesn’t write choruses in a way that would please major label record execs, but Benson’s raw musical talent is enormous. It’s redolent of early Matthew Sweet or Alex Chilton, yet remains something sweetly original.

He wisely has aligned himself with a smaller label now, Brooklyn’s Star Time International, and one hopes that, as the wounds of the past heal, he continues to find further inspiration captured in song for our benefit. After these many difficult years, Benson proves he can take life’s lemons and serve up musical lemonade. As such, Lapalco is bittersweet, but refreshing.