2009 / Music

Review: Raconteurs’ Benson Hones Power-Pop Punch On Solo Effort

Raconteurs Co-Leader Releases Fourth Solo Disc

If the two chief talents behind garage-rockers the Raconteurs have proven anything this summer it’s that neither is taking the group’s indeterminate hiatus as an opportunity for a vacation from the stage.

Photo: ATO Records

Photo: ATO Records

While many could have guessed frontman Jack White would take his visceral guitarwork and return to his main creative outlet, the White Stripes, he instead segued from one side project to a new one mere weeks after wrapping a tour with the Raconteurs. White’s new offering, the Dead Weather, released its blistering debut album last month.

Trailing only weeks behind, White’s fellow Raconteur, singer-songwriter Brendan Benson, has followed fans’ expectations more exactly by refocusing on his neglected solo career. Like White, he too now seems energized by the change of scenery and the chance to dive into work again. Benson’s new album, “My Old Familiar Friend,” goes the furthest yet to inspire confidence in and exaltation for his skills as a McCartney-esque songwriting craftsman and power-pop enthusiast. The bright, easily-pleasing songs on the record announce Benson’s arrival with a radio-friendly poke.

That Benson would return to his often-ignored solo work should come as no surprise since his contributions to the Raconteurs always bore his clear musical imprint. While artists are often loathe to pigeonholing themselves, the Raconteurs’ ’70s-influenced alchemy of slick hooks and raw guitar brutality can be neatly sourced back to the sensibilities of its two leaders. While White schooled the quartet on his preference for decibel-splitting sonics, meat-and-potatoes arrangements and in-the-moment spontaneity (as well as providing some much-needed name recognition), he clearly loved playing against Benson’s studious preparations, his predilection for sophisticated harmonizing and skills as a writer. The group never reached either man’s aspirations for the project, but occasionally came close.

With White and another of his erstwhile bandmates busy turning up the volume on their new gig, “My Old Familiar Friend” blossoms from Benson’s renewed independence. His now free hand runs forth with time to add and augment the melodies and his uncompromising focus on the finer details make these songs his most effective yet. To be sure, rumors had suggested Benson was working on a country-themed album. Not so. The tracks off the new disc sound like they pick up exactly where last year’s “Consolers Of The Lonely” left off except in two key regards. First, he doesn’t have to share the mic with White. Second, the new cuts have an ear-appealing attractiveness and buoyancy that Benson and White couldn’t instill in their collaborations.

On his own again, Benson demonstrates a greater flair and a higher quality game than what his audience has heard from him previously. The record is clearly a major leap from his last solo effort in 2005. It’s surely not that he’s changed his tact of blending the sounds of the British Invasion, psychedelia and ’70s rock overindulgence. Rather, the results of his labor are just so much better. As before, Benson smartly ties together Kinks-inspired, choppy guitar riffs and Big Star vocal harmonies, but with some truly dynamic melodies, filling this disc with a roster of potential singles. Dabblers perusing these cuts via the iTunes store will have a tough choice if they want to avoid buying an album of filler.

First instincts would suggest Benson just has better material this time around. The romantic pop symphony of “Garbage Day” is remarkably grander than anything Benson has attempted before. The lyrics’ cardboard-cutout imagery is excellent in its simplicity and clearly harkens back to the everyman best of the Brill Building circa the ’50s and early ’60s. The strings too make this something that Tom Jones or Neil Diamond would be comfortable crooning in Las Vegas. To ward off fears that he is sinking to a nightclub act, Benson cleverly fuses this with a Booker T. & the MGs rhythm, giving the song a drive and intensity that dispels any schmaltzy aftertaste.

Further suggesting Benson’s got a deeper bag of tricks is how he makes the straightforward rocker “Poised And Ready” glitter with pop charisma while packing a wallop of pure infectious energy. The song begins with a peppy, Ben Folds piano slap that jabs to the propulsive drumbeat. It expertly conjures the whirlwind of fame and panic of stage fright that Benson is trying to examine in the verses. Whining about the downside of rock stardom is about as refreshing and relatable to the common man as Brad Pitt complaining about his love life. And yet, Benson’s sharp delivery and wise emphasis on shared emotions proves there’s still ways to connect with reality-show jaded audiences if you have the know-how.

Better and braver material aside, the singer’s deeper pockets also seem to have done wonders for “My Old Familiar Friend.” The impact of this we can hear in the handiwork of a top-flight producer. Surely, some credit for the album’s brilliant, deeper sound should also go to producer Gil Norton, who’s most famous for his work with the Pixies, Foo Fighters and Counting Crows. Norton specializes in smoothing out group’s rough edges in favor of polish while sharpening the textures of his clients’ tunes. As such, the partnership with Benson is an ideal fit. He gives Benson the license to explore and stack overdubs without allowing all these accoutrements to forsake the material’s snap and pointed-ness. Norton and Benson might tack on toy synthesizers and other gimmicky embellishments, but they ever lose sight of the fact that these songs were born to rawk.

An ideal example is “A Whole Lot Better,” which might have been a smash back in 1985. Benson has conceived of a cut that combines the fury of the Who — guitar crunch, frantic drumming — with literally dozens of ensnaring poppy hooks divined from Electric Light Orchestra. He’s clearly a child of rock’s most over-the-top decade and willing to express it in the style of the following decade’s most faux cheery. This is evident too with his vocal performance, which demonstrates that kind of vulnerability and availability that would have made Molly Ringwald’s heart melt.

Similarly, “Borrow” explodes like a power-pop supernova. Mad scientist keyboards dart and wiz by the guitars blindly mowing down anything in their way. Benson’s singing, meanwhile, is at its best, staying ahead of the thrilling racket of guitars, springboard bass and energetic drumming and yet pulling the building music back before it steamrolls off the cliff. The intensity is irresistible and explosive that listeners might momentarily forget that this is a great songwriter’s con. The danger we hear is just a well-executed illusion that we’re hearing rock ‘n’ roll bedlam. It’s all choreographed.

The fact that Benson might be a more formulaic songwriter than White might rob him of the allure of being an unbridled talent. For a genre that places rulebreakers on a pedestal, the fact that White appears to play by the seat of his pants makes him a much more intriguing figure than his partner.

On the other hand, as a committed craftsman, Benson is bound to improve his craft given his creativity and commitment than White’s improvisations. “My Old Familiar Friend” establishes that Benson isn’t repeating formulas that he’s learned by rote. Instead, he’s using his thorough knowledge of the tools of the trade to make the most of his songs.

With the Raconteurs’ success behind him, Benson now has the confidence to keep going. He took his summer off to try his hand at a task his Brill Building forbearers consistently attempted come warm weather. They all set out to pen a hit song that would reign all summer long. Benson made an album full of valiant attempts and very nearly pulled it off. His apprenticeship is over.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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