Brendan Benson—My Old, Familiar Friend
By Jessica Misener
August 17, 2009
The Raconteurs member releases an album of so-so college rock.
Brendan Benson, Sufjan Stevens, Dan Deacon—it seems these days the key to solo-musician- dude success is having your first and last name start with the same letter. As for Benson, the struggling songwriter-turned-Raconteur has tracked a path back to solo work with his third album My Old, Familiar Friend, an assortment of crunchy power pop laced with an indie inseam. It’s been a decade since male alt-rockers counted and crowed their way to the top of the charts—and more than a decade since Benson’s debut album on Virgin Records—but Benson stubbornly clings to his acoustic guitar and flirty phrasing, recalling a pre-tabloid John Mayer filtered through Lollapalooza.
Unfortunately, his obstinacy isn’t only limited to genre. Though ostensibly team efforts, Raconteurs songs have always been authorship floozies, easily betraying their composer by the tone of the chords and lyrics: mellow and navel-gazing (Benson), or raw and razor-slicing (Jack White). And Benson here sticks to his benign diction, stirring up an album of mostly nondescript songs that sound like Consolers of the Lonely B-sides. Sometimes Benson does strike a poignant chord, like on the snaking and moody “Feel Like Taking You Home,” but most of the time, pseudo-deep lyrics like "If she throws her heart away/I'll be there on garbage day" run melodies into the ground. On droners like “Gonowhere” and “Lesson Learned,” Benson’s pedantic verses bring to mind Suze Orman doling out financial tips over a Cheap Trick song.
There’s some substance to praise on Friend; musically, the album, though not entirely memorable, is comfortable and strong. "Poised and Ready" is tightly wound into a melodic coil, and a sunny chorus lifts "Don't Wanna Talk," a slice of buoyant Beatles-esque pop. “Whole Lot Better” is just that when compared to some of its blander companion tracks. At least Benson’s Raconteurs dollars have provided for a healthy sheen of studio production.
The college-y rock on Friend would make good background music for shooting pool in the campus lounge, all sleepy and persistent without any real jolts to distract you into scratching. “I try not to make waves/I try to go with the flow,” Benson intones on one track, but you can't help wishing he would trade his old, familiar friend for more of a backseat-of-the-bus risk taker.
Jessica Misener, despite this review, likes album titles with commas. See her website at http://jessicamisener.webs.com.