George Benson: Irreplaceable

Jason MacNeil

George Benson


Label: Verve
US Release Date: 2004-05-25
UK Release Date: 2004-03-15

Few guitarists can match the resume of one George Benson. The guitarist has been plying his trade for the better part of several decades now but still is intent on changing with the times, rolling with the punches, or any other adage that means adapting and coping. Benson's worst enemy could often be himself as the horde of material he's released (studio and compilations) would make several labels pull their hair out. Nonetheless, he keeps putting things out there and his latest album is no different. With the help of several contemporary writers, including one who has worked with "boy bands" like O-Town, Benson makes this disc work sporadically with some highly slick studio polish.

Opening with "Six Play", the album has a definitive soulful and urban sound, comparable to several soul singers like D'Angelo and R. Kelly. The light and airy female vocals work in tandem with Benson's intricate guitar work. Judging by this song alone, one gets the feeling he's after something Santana and, more recently, Toots & the Maytals are after -- getting help to make everything flow. The only difference is this is basically lacking the big names. Benson resembles a bit player on this track as the romantic, turn-the-lights-down-low effort saunters along. "Whole Man" comes off as genuine and not quite as forced, with Joshua Thompson adding guitars and Melvin Davis on Hammond organ. The lyrics are also far better, resulting in the song's melody and chorus being an early high point a la Luther Vandross.

Benson's guitar work is buried deep in each of these songs, especially on the slow and tender title track. With bits of acoustic guitar, a pinch of keyboard, and a drum-programming sample, Benson gets strong backing harmonies also. It's the type of song that K-Ci & Jo-Jo would have to think about covering. Another plus is, despite the sampling, the rather smooth yet heartfelt groove Benson usually creates. The first snafu, though, is "Loving Is Better Than Leaving", opening with a bit of talk that too often ruins current R&B ditties. Talking about being played over a bland arrangement, Benson creates a style that has been done to death. "Who would've thought I'd ever see my lady dirty dance with another man", Benson sings. Whatever. "Cell Phone", which comes later on, falls into a similar bland rut despite the pretty duet. "Can a cell phone reach to heaven?" they sing, which might ring true (excuse the pun) in some spots, but not here.

"Strings of Love" fares better, resembling Sting circa "Fragile" to a certain extent. The flamenco touches on guitar create a delicate sound that is part soul and part "world" music. Unfortunately, Benson isn't given much solo work in terms of either his voice or guitar letting loose over a period of time. Several solos should be given with either instrument, including the sultry "Black Rose" with its orchestral touches. Here Benson is finally given a bit of time to shine, but he works in tandem with the lush sounds, rarely venturing into unknown territory. The meticulous style he uses brings to mind a calmer Jeff Beck or Clapton. "Stairway to Love" is probably one of the nuggets offered up despite the rather insipid lyrical content. The guitar work and vocals are strong and there is very little padding added in terms of harmonies or extra instruments. It has a certain Bee Gees sound, whether it's the higher than usual pitch or not.

Benson has only 10 tracks on this record, with "Reason for Breathing" starting off okay but failing miserably the further it goes. "I think I might be going down", a lyric goes, which hits the nail on the head in terms of the track's quality. "Missing You" has more of a jazz touch, which Benson seems to lap up quickly. Although the album has a few quality tracks, the title is a bit deceiving.

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