Brendan Benson - The Alternative To Love
The British musical landscape in early 2005 was something to marvel at, a high proportion of exciting bands breaking into the popular conscience. Most of these produced, and continue to, edgy and irreverent angular guitar pop - Bloc Party and The Futureheads spring to mind. However, there was a man-sized hole in the musical pallette, belonging to the male singer/songwriter. Since, this year has seen James Blunt's album become the biggest of the year, whilst old-hand David Gray has just returned with a new album and British-born Antony (of the 'and the Johnsons' fame) hit the headlines with his Mercury Award success. These artists, though, all rely on ballads to generate sales and critical plaudits - what, in 2005, has become of hook-driven, cheery pop tunes that the populace can dance to?
Look to America's Brendan Benson, Jack White's favourite singer/songwriter and best pal (the two are currently collaborating on a record that is scheduled for release next year). His past two albums, 1996's One Mississippi and 2003's Lapalco, both garnered critical thumbs-ups and, especially in the case of the latter, achieved cult status amongst Mr Benson's die-hard fans. However, real mainstream success has eluded him on both sides of the Atlantic. Whilst this, his third effort, hasn't changed that a great deal, White's gushing praise no doubt helped Benson's February and April UK tour dates sell out. This October sees Brendan visiting Blighty once again to tout his most recent material: should fans be excited? Skip straight to track eleven, What I'm Looking For, and you'll see the answer is a definite 'yes'.
It's not that the first ten tracks are laborious - far from it, in fact. However, this track represents Benson's strengths more than anything else on the record. It is a cast-iron pop classic, combining guitars and piano work in a simple yet effective manner. In short, it's the kind of Beatles-esque sing-a-long that McFly would die to get their mitts on, without succumbing to the wafer-thin credibility of that group. It's not anything new to say The Beatles influence is a thread running through the entire album, along with his previous work. In fact, it might not be entirely scandalous to term Benson's work 'formulaic' - every song on this album references previous artists' work, from The Beach Boys, ELO and Bob Dylan to more contemporary material such as Beck and Weezer. However, Benson's talent is in creating perfect three/four-minute pop songs that borrow heavily from his influences whilst still putting his own spin on the end result. Highlights include opener Spit It Out which, along with Feel Like Myself and the title track, makes a strong case for high-energy, guitar-chugging power-pop over bland balladery any day of the week. Cold Hands (Warm Heart) shows that this guy does indulge in the odd slowie here and there, only this song is imbued with more warmth than a thousand You're Beautiful's. It's quite surprising that the middle section of the album does enter mid-tempo territory, thereby making it a testament to Benson's McCartney-like ear for hook and melody that the album doesn't stall. The album closes on a high note with the pleasantly raucous Between Us, which features guitar work that wouldn't sound out of place on the Grease soundtrack. Special mention must also go to track five, The Pledge, a gloriously overblown love song that has divided fan opinion due to its blatant ripping-off of the Phil Spector production sound - I fall into the 'pro' camp.
So there you have it. If you're one of the many people who hasn't purchased this album, it is not going to change the way you think about music nor is it going to change your life in some monumental way. However, it will provide you with twelve of the best-written out-and-out pop tunes of the year without sounding anything like the McFly/Busted manufactured template we Brits have been prey to over the last couple of years. Make no mistake: this is credible stuff, it just isn't one hundred per cent original. No matter, though, for I'd rather listen to this glorious album than any of Beck's recent experimental dabblings. For those Beck fans who wish he'd pull his finger out and make another Loser, then look no further - Brendan Benson is the man for you.