When it was released last year, Brendan Benson‘s Lapalco brought nothing but joy to the world, or at least to those lucky enough to stumble across it. A triumph of DIY-home recording (though Benson was joined by collaborator Jason Falkner of Jellyfish, who also chipped in on Benson’s overlooked gem of a debut, 1996’s One Mississippi), Lapalco was, as power pop goes, as charming as it was infectious.
Fast-forward to 2003 and Benson’s got TV airplay — Lapalco‘s opener, “Tiny Spark” is hawking the Saturn Ion — and he’s been touring with the likes of the Flaming Lips, Ben Kweller, Beth Orton, and fellow Michiganers the White Stripes. But he’s not doing it alone: he’s got a backing band, the Wellfed Boys. (Is it me, or does that sound like a name the Coen brothers considered before settling on the Soggy Bottom Boys for their O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Just a thought. Turns out they were named for Benson’s vinyl-only promo, Well Fed Boy.) The Wellfed Boys help Benson add muscle to his songs but remove chunks of Benson’s charm in the process.
Like Spielberg or Lucas tinkering with their beloved movies for no reason in particular except to call attention to the fact that they can, the Wellfed version of “Metarie” that kicks off the Metarie EP exists only to let the world know that Benson now has a touring band. Benson, to his credit, though, admits the superiority of the Lapalco version: “[The original] hasn’t been beat since. . . . It was recorded on cassette and it’s loaded with mistakes, but it love it,” the press release accompanying Metarie quotes him as saying. For the record, the EP’s take isn’t bad, just unnecessary. It’s got a fuller sound, a bit more twang, keyboards, and a fuzzed-out soaring guitar solo; it probably kicks ass live, but on CD you’re left pining for the original. Those effects are just window dressing changes, busying up the song, but there is a bona fide difference in the Wellfed version: The addition of new lyrics, installed by Benson after an A&R man claimed the song needed a “chorus”. They’re definitely Benson’s lyrics — “I ran outta gas and I’m stuck like glue” — but again, tacking on new lyrics is unnecessary.
The UK version, as it appears on the US EP features more tinkering — an uncredited female voice harmonizing with Benson, and a dreamy atmospheric aura enveloping the tune. (The UK EP features a slightly different track listing: “Metarie (Fred de Faye Mix)” / “Alternative to Love” / “Metarie (Alpha’s Dub Mix)” for what it’s worth).
Benson and his Boys also re-imagine Lapalco‘s “You’re Quiet”, and again it finds the band falling into the same traps that derailed the Wellfed Metarie. The original was a shy take on meeting people (“I’m Brendan / What’s your name?”) that benefited from delicate arrangement and quirky keyboards. The keyboards are still in place, but the song is too sturdy and belies the narrator. And he changes the goofy “I need a pick up / And I don’t mean truck” to “. . . And I don’t mean fuck”. Again, stick with Lapalco.
It’s no surprise, then, that the EP’s highlight is a stripped-down Benson home recording, the new “Alternative to Love”. It starts out sparse, with the other instruments falling in behind him. By the time it’s all said and done, it’s a jangly tune worthy of the Benson canon. His trademark off-kilter sense of rhyme and lyrical structure is as strong as ever: “Maybe I’ve been caught red-handed / Making off like a lucky bandit / And now I walk this planet”, and the song on the whole proves that for Benson, less is more.
The EP ends with a cover of Wings’ “Let Me Roll It”, an odd move for a self-professed John Lennon acolyte (see “Folk Singer”‘s “She said stop pretendin’ / You’re not John Lennon”), but a concert fave for Benson and the Wellfeds. It’s easily the heaviest, bluesiest song (there’s a harmonica solo!) he has ever recorded, and I’m willing to overlook the heaviness (after railing against it up to this point) because, hey, it’s not his song.
There’s nothing wrong with it, but the Metarie EP is little more than an advertisement for the existence of the Wellfed Boys (though “Alternative to Love” may be enough for some to justify ponying up the cash for this EP). New Benson fans should start with Lapalco; Metarie is for completists only.