Review Summary: Brendan does without White and most of the Raconteurs, but sounds more complete than ever.4 of 4 thought this review was well written
The journey of the power-pop pioneer continues. Ever since his brilliant solo debut (or arguably his more brilliant follow-up, Lapalco
), Brendan Benson was marked on the map as a secret escape tunnel for a closet case pop lover. Catchy hooks, joyous melodies, soft piano ballads, and acoustic heartbreaks were made excusable for any 'rocker' to admit their liking. Still, however, the majority of people have only heard of him because of his spot in The Raconteurs. After singing alongside Jack White for two albums, Brendan turns his focus toward his solo career and this time, with a bit of accommodation. Stepping back into the spotlight he once claimed without White's help, he returns to doing what he does best. From starting out as a 'tiny spark', the Detroit multi-instrumentalist stomps on with his thriving solo career with the satisfying and immediately engaging My Old, Familiar Friend
Benson puts his main focus into is his ability to construct a pop song prototype and install a rock-steady momentum to bring it to life. It might be due to the fact that he's more paid attention to because of The Raconteurs, but for his fourth studio album, Benson doesn't settle for the same mediocre production quality he's accustomed to. Now, the simple songwriting and chronic form of 'hook upon melody upon hook' are taken to a larger stage. Brendan takes advantage of this and presses onto a sound more filled with power, sorrow, or whatever the case may be.
He revs it up from the very start with "A Whole Lot Better". The aggressive guitar stays friendly but firm when the song picks up its speed after a paceful introduction. It turns toward an enthusiastic tempo laced with squealy organ lines and different backup guitar riffs buzzing in from time to time to help the song see its way to a quintessential Benson tune. This sort of voltage is what saves the album from being tedious and pointless and reforms it to being occupied and interesting.
The most minute differences from his past seem to bring any sort of spice that they can. For example: since we've basically never heard Brendan flirt with the new wave pulse of 'uhn tiss uhn tiss uhn tiss', the single "Feel Like Taking You Home" piques some new interest, especially for any long time fan.
Besides the appending of psychedelic organ bawls and a generally higher speed, Brendan sticks to the comfortable conservative structures that've worked before. There's nothing straying too far from the 'verse-chorus-verse-chorus' ritual, but intensity is put in the right places to make the listen entertaining. "Poised And Ready" does a great job featuring his catchy vocals while the drums and piano hammer the measure steadily in the beginning. The easily enjoyable song owes its effectiveness to the immediate emphasis of the vocals: "You're poised and ready, unable to make a sound/Your hands are sweaty as you look down"
. Nothing has changed too drastically with the themes Brendan uses in his lyrics, as he sticks to relationships or small gestures like in "Don't Wanna Talk" later in the album. It uses the sass of the poppy introduction to pull off "La, la, la, don't want to talk about it"
over the pretty average chord progression - over a "Longview" sounding drum beat.
Before you assume the record is nothing but a no thought gimmick fattened with cheap hooks, I must say the genuine emotion is still present. When Benson sings his blues, he does so with the primeval intent to have you sing along deeply if the mood fits. The smooth, relaxed texture of "Lesson Learned" brings you down from the consistent joyful bustling and treats you with a stress reliever of airy humming in the bridge. Where in this case the song stays sullen, the previous work of "You Make A Fool Out Of Me" rises melodically in a beautiful movement of many whimpering violins and a cushioned piano supporting Brendan's acoustic guitar. It wouldn't be Brendan if there wasn't at least one tongue-in-cheek line for a sad song, and there are plenty throughout the album.
Even in the more unchanging and stable songs, like "Garbage Day" - with its easy. fixed snare count against orchestral strings - there's a detailed and complete sound that wouldn't have you wanting to skip the track. Every so often, a new instrument comes in, or a new vocal line emerges.
It's hard to say what it was that made Brendan Benson add a little more zest in his usual pop-acoustic ditties, but it's not hard to say that it's a bit more fun. Branching out to different sounds, rhythms, and instruments than on his last albums, Benson handles My Old, Familiar Friend
with creativity, charm, and animation. I would certainly say that this is a musical improvement for the power-popper. He opened up to a more experimental climate of rock and it paid off without sacrificing what his fans turn to him for - a carefree ride to loosen the slack of stress with plenty of stuck-in-your-head moments as you cruise. Having quite a lot of replay value and overall consistency, My Old, Familiar Friend
is superb effort that should be both satisfying for long time fans, and as good a start as any for anyone looking for a worthy listen.