Monday, August 17, 2009

Review: Brendan Benson - My Old, Familiar Friend (* * * 1/2)

Though Brendan Benson has been around for some time now (well over ten years, in fact), he's most widely known as that one guy who plays with Jack White in White's side project The Raconteurs. That may seem unjust or unfair, but it's given Benson tremendous exposure as he wasn't just a role player in the band. For anyone familiar with his solo material, it's quite clear he brought a great deal of influence to the group with his unique songwriting style, and now it seems the time spent with White has affected Benson as well. His new record and fourth effort - My Old, Familiar Friend - is a little more brash and explosive that Benson's previous work, taking the breezy 60's pop-folk sound of his other albums and infusing a bluesy, rock 'n' roll attitude that brings about some exciting results, though the record's somewhat inconsistent nature may hamper it from receiving the accolades so often lavished on his other project.

The album is fairly frontloaded and gets off to a great start with the rockin' "A Whole Lot Better," the most Raconteurs-esque cut of the bunch. Over pounding drums, incessant keys, and layers of guitars, Benson throws out earnest pop poetry that's infectious and fun, and the energy continues with the smooth, jangly "Eyes On The Horizon" and the spectacular, retro-pop-flavored "Garbage Day." Benson's skills are sharp and his ambition more apparent here than ever before, with clever compositions and perfectly arranged instrumental flourishes that fill, but don't distract from, the majority of the songs. Benson's lyricism can seem tiring on the occasion that he gets a little to vindictive about his bad experiences with love, but he keeps things from getting too heavy-handed and My Old, Familiar Friend mostly avoids getting bogged down in the dreary relationship drama by keeping the pace quick and the hooks plentiful. It's unfortunate that none of the latter material measures up to the high standard set on the album, but there's much more than filler to be found, and by the end of the fiery closer "Borrow," the whole experience feels quite satisfying.

I wonder what kind of commercial impact My Old, Familiar Friend will have now that Benson has become something of an indie rock mainstay, but however his popularity as a solo artist has been affected, it's clear that he's making the most of his opportunities on this record by providing a mostly solid rock album for longtime fans and newcomers alike to dig into. And for Raconteurs fans, this should at least hold you over until White wisely decides to ditch that Dead Weather business and get back to recording with Benson and company.