By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
TOWARD BRENDAN BENSON — SON OF NEW ORLEANS, Detroit and L.A., silversmith of insanely addictive pop songs and possibly the most talented troubadour of the moment — you feel protective. Not that the man himself is some kind of hothouse flower, but when you get down to writing about his music, you have this impulse to hold back the familiar clichés, ignore the itch to speak in fake tongues. For his sake, you chuck the calculated turns of phrase (to hell with the "crunchy guitars," the "synth bleeps" and the "power-pop tunes"!) and instead get back to the source — to the Old Man River, to the memory of that first kiss — because that is what his songs conjure up, paradoxically enough, given that they always seem to be about a guy who's a little shy and spends too much of the day in his own head. Brendan Benson inspires that kind of rebellion: You want to be beautiful, clean and simple, like his songs.
Although singer-songwriters have never been in short supply, what Benson has to offer has become a rare commodity in an age when pop music is by definition slick, ironic, surgically enhanced in studio labs, equally bloated and thinned down to nothingness. The proof is last year's Lapalco, the six-years-in-the-making follow-up to Benson's beautiful but cursed debut, One Mississippi. Amid the crap packaged as pop music these days, Lapalco is both shockingly out of place and instantly familiar, like a fuzzy cashmere blanket you might find on sale at Target. The numbers that punch it up (the single "Tiny Spark," or the raucous "Folk Singer") stick like glue after only one listen. Balls of unbearably catchy harmonies, they burrow into the pit of your stomach, whence they continue to glow and warm you through the hours and days to come. The slower tracks ("Life in the D," "Metarie") sneak up on you, too. Right when you think it's safe to write them off as another singer-songwriter attempt at cheesy melancholy, they flail back to punch you in the gut.
If you haven't heard much of Lapalco, chances are you will, because ever since it came out in February of last year, it's steadily crawled toward the spotlight, dragging Benson along with it. He seems to have struck a chord with the Brits in particular — obsessive lovers of finely tuned pop that they are, they gave Lapalco uniformly high marks. The record (named after the main artery in the New Orleans banlieue of Harvey, where Benson, the son of a welder, grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River) made several "best of 2002" lists compiled by U.K. publications. Add the fact that for the past year or so Benson has been running up mega-mileage in support of acts like the White Stripes, Beth Orton, the Flaming Lips and currently Ben Kweller, and the question is: Where does he go from here?
"There's no plan. There's never a plan," he says modestly by phone from his Detroit studio, a few weeks before he's due to embark on another whirl around the country, which will bring him and his band, the Wellfed Boys, to L.A. for two shows.
Despite assurances to the contrary ("No matter how much you take/Of each song that I make/I'm not fragile, I don't break"), Benson comes at you with an intense and irresistible vulnerability. How can you not adore a guy who sings about wanting to become "more of a man and less of a mouse," who confesses, "Been a little down on my luck/I need a pickup and I don't mean truck"? Because he has a way with bons mots and likes to mention, affectionately, Shakespeare, Saul Bellow, his cheap Supro amp and his beat-up Volvo in his songs, you might get the impression that Benson is just another ironic hipster. Indeed, many reviews interpreted Lapalco as a soundtrack to yuppie ennui; one in particular called the record "slick, sardonic and perfect with a family tub of Ben & Jerry's."
"I don't really try for anything," he says. "A lot of times what I write is really personal, and I do make myself vulnerable. As I get older, I'm probably more sarcastic and jaded. But I'm not intentionally doing anything, trying to be in any way. I just do what I think sounds good."
Like his artistic alter ego, Benson has a slightly self-deprecating manner — "He's down on himself a lot, much like myself," suggests his good friend and fellow Detroit musician Jack White. If Benson's songs only amplify a natural tendency, they are also like live wires that wrap themselves around your heart and connect you in perfect musical empathy to a man, age 32, his Mini-Korg synth and his guitars.
WHEN BENSON SINGS OF DRIVING HIS CAR "DOWN south to the Mississippi's mouth" to "get soused" in the Gulf of Mexico, you're 20 years old again, strung out on busted dreams. Like the best pop songs, his have the ability to convey the frissons of youth, that magical time when no matter how bitter the taste of defeat in your mouth, your heart is still inflamed by the hope that out there, somewhere, great things lie in wait.