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.
White breaks down the magic from a musician's standpoint: "I'm commiserating with him when I hear his music; he's an extremely talented songwriter. I envy his melodies. His approach is different than mine, but I love it."
Benson's extremely melodic approach often brings to mind Paul McCartney's contributions to the mid-era Beatles, or his work with Wings.
"Yeah, a lot of people say that," says Benson. "But John Lennon's my favorite. I think he's a lot more heartfelt, a lot more honest and pure. McCartney, it seems to me, is more fascinated with the craft of making music, with the math you know, the technical side of things. I appreciate both. I'm trying to write music that means something, and I want to explore the musical part, too."
Lapalco was laid down in Benson's Detroit studio, entirely on analog equipment. The sound has the off-the-cuff, spontaneous charm of something your cousin might have cooked up in the basement if your cousin had a shamanistic near- genius for layering harmonies.
"I was really learning to use this stuff that I bought," he says, "so the record reflects that journey, all the trials and errors. It sounds analog mostly because it's recorded kind of poorly."
His ideas about recording and songwriting have also contaminated other operators from Detroit's music scene. "He's taught me some tricks about miking instruments and production," says White. "From him I've learned that 'coolness' is subjective. Many ideas that I usually wouldn't have bothered with I tried to cultivate because of his inspiration."
BORN IN ROYAL OAKS, MICHIGAN, BENSON SPENT HIS early childhood in Harvey, Louisiana. Almost from birth, he was into the coolest rock & roll. His mom played him David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop records, and as a mere blue-eyed babe, he was already attuned to Diamond Dogs, and irresistibly drawn to one particular song from that album called "1984."
The song must have messed with the patterns of his young brain, laying the imprint for what would later turn into songwriting skills not that he knew it at the time, of course.
"I wasn't conscious of anything," he says with a laugh. "I just knew that something about that song turned me on. But I don't know how, and why, I liked the things I did then or now. I don't think about it much . . . until I'm asked to." He spent his teens in Detroit, where he, in order, bought his first record, went to high school and discovered punk rock.
Benson came to California in the early '90s armed with a tape that contained 30 songs he had recorded himself on a double-deck stereo, dubbing all the guitar parts and vocals one track at a time. In L.A., he waited the proverbial tables and ran around town as a PA ("I had a hard time with the jobs keeping them, working at them, getting up for them," he says), waiting to pounce on a break. Every day he'd leave the tiny West Hollywood apartment he shared with a roommate to walk to Farmers Market for some quiet time among the stalls of candied fruit and shish kebab: "That was my favorite place to be alone and write lyrics."
He soon lucked into a recording deal with Virgin. The result was his 1996 debut, One Mississippi, a record that in spite of its high-production gloss hopscotched from elegance (the sweetly melodious opener, "Tea") to sheer exuberance, from acoustic ballads to big, fat anthems like "Got No Secrets" and "Sittin' Pretty," which exploded with harmonies and guitars and peppy beats like Britpop supernovas. Even the cover smiled: It depicted Benson suspended in midair leap, as if he and his Guild Aristocrat had decided to abandon Planet Earth and take up residence on a cluster of strawberry clouds.
A record so extravagantly joyous was clearly destined to fail, and it did. Dropped with a thud by Virgin in the midst of completing what would become Lapalco, Benson slunk out of L.A. and back home to Detroit. There, he bought a house for cheap, put a studio in it and, safe from toxic interference "managers and record executives telling me I'm not writing choruses" he started afresh, working on new songs with Jason Falkner (of Jellyfish), an old friend.
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As for One Mississippi, it has been out of print ever since "People find it in the dollar bins in some places, used, online. I don't even have a copy of it," Benson says, "and I don't think about it much. It's sort of a sad thing, but I don't cry over it." While moving pitiful numbers of units, the disc did tickle the fancy of tastemakers, and acquired objet-de-cult status almost instantly. In 1999 Esquire magazine dusted it off, calling it "one of the greatest overlooked pop masterpieces of the decade . . . both winsome and cruel, a combination," the magazine noted, "which explains why Benson swiftly Jimmy Hoffa'd into oblivion."
Well, they were wrong. Benson's back, and things are looking better than ever. On "Tiny Spark" he sings, "I've always been this way . . . Got the right of way/And all of the others must yield."
You have been forewarned.
Brendan Benson plays the Roxy on Friday and Saturday, February 21 and 22.