Plumbiferous Media

My Old, Familiar Friend - Brendan Benson

Aug 20th 2009
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My Old Familiar Friend - Brendan BensonBrendan Benson
My Old Familiar Friend
Score: 44

Bren­dan Ben­son returned Tues­day from The Racon­teurs col­lab­o­ra­tive with his newest solo album, My Old, Famil­iar Friend. But while the album starts with a dense, bril­liant­ly active track that would pro­vide stiff com­pe­ti­tion for any­thing on Con­sol­ers for the Lone­ly, the rest of the album nev­er reach­es the lev­el of suc­cess he ini­tial­ly man­ages. As a result, Ben­son’s first solo album since 2005 is not quite the wel­come back for which one would have hoped.

“A Whole Lot Bet­ter” starts the album off with a build­ing epic, chock full of con­trast­ing lines that some­how man­age to fit nice­ly with­in the space pro­vid­ed by one anoth­er. It some­times strays towards becom­ing clut­tered, but nev­er quite reach­es that point. The only warn­ing sig­nals thrown are the occa­sion­al dras­tic tran­si­tions that don’t quite con­nect the two sec­tions. But the full neg­a­tive force of the mis­treat­ed tran­si­tions does­n’t become appar­ent until lat­er tracks like “Garbage Day.” Sim­i­lar­ly, while “A Whole Lot Bet­ter” man­aged to nar­row­ly avoid clut­ter, the same is not true for, say, “Eye on the Hori­zon” in which, dur­ing the last sec­tion, parts are added on top of the then repet­i­tive back­ing regard­less of whether they fit in per­fect­ly, cre­at­ing an over­ly dense sound.

Ben­son’s vocals are any­thing but weak. In fact, they’re often one of the strongest parts of My Old, Famil­iar Friend. Ben­son’s voice is imbued with an obvi­ous ener­gy which car­ries it, and the over­all tone of the music, through the album, pre­vent­ing the album from becom­ing bor­ing by cre­at­ing an active thread through each track. The well-designed nuances at the edge of Ben­son’s words dis­tin­guish his vocals quite effec­tive­ly, fur­ther devel­op­ing the sound of the album. How­ev­er, the album is not always vocal­ly laud­able, most notably on sev­er­al of the duller tracks, includ­ing “Mis­ery,” where Ben­son’s vocals can­not help but merge with the inef­fa­bly gener­ic melodies. Rare arti­fi­cial effects have much the same effect - they’ve obvi­ous­ly been cho­sen to effort­less­ly mark cer­tain sec­tions of the vocals, but, lack­ing the cre­ativ­i­ty nec­es­sary to do so, instead leave the lis­ten­er slight­ly con­fused rather than interested.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, for each point of suc­cess in the vocals of My Old, Famil­iar Friend, there appears to be an equiv­a­lent point of medi­oc­rity in the lyrics. Ben­son’s lyrics are often painful­ly bland, gener­ic, and occa­sion­al­ly sim­ply painful. Lines such as “I fell in love with you / And out of love with you / And back in love with you / All in the same day,” fit with the sim­ple aes­thet­ic for which Ben­son seems to be striv­ing but don’t match up with the qual­i­ty of even some of the less suc­cess­ful parts of the album.

When Ben­son suc­ceeds lyri­cal­ly, it’s on the rare occa­sions when he breaks free of his trite com­fort zone and straight into inex­plic­a­ble odd­ness: “I’m con­vinced that under­neath that blonde hair / There’s a lis­ten­ing device plant­ed there / And there’s a man who fol­lows us every­where / And we should­n’t care.” But as Ben­son gen­er­al­ly stays with­in the realm of awful word­play (as with “Garbage Day“ ‘s “But if she throws her heart away / I’ll be there on garbage day”), noth­ing inter­est­ing can be expected.

Tak­en in its entire­ty, My Old, Famil­iar Friend varies high­ly between degrees of good and bad. Even while “Feel Like Tak­ing You Home” avoids dull­ness through con­stant build­ing and for­ward direc­tion through the track, oth­er tracks can­not help but sound like mis­takes. “Garbage Day” inter­spers­es what sounds like a key­board­’s “demo” fea­ture with an ill-fit­ting, if much improved, sec­ond sec­tion. On “You Make a Fool Out of Me,” Ben­son unsuc­cess­ful­ly exper­i­ments with acoustic instru­ments, and even while Mis­ery forces the album out of the slump cre­at­ed by the pre­vi­ous few tracks, the pop-rock inspired instru­men­tals that seem to be a sig­nif­i­cant­ly sim­pler ver­sion of what Ben­son had work­ing for him on “A Whole Lot Bet­ter.” And even when Ben­son attempts to return to the sound he ini­tial­ly mas­tered, one ele­ment or anoth­er does­n’t quite make it, leav­ing “Feel Like Tak­ing You Home,” in which the instru­men­tals don’t quite man­age to sup­port the vocals, and “Don’t Wan­na Talk,” in which the vocals and lyrics strug­gle to stand up under the weight of the instrumentals.

With My Old, Famil­iar Friend, Bren­dan Ben­son has cre­at­ed an inter­est­ing, but flawed piece of work. Tak­ing obvi­ous inspi­ra­tion from clas­sic rock, Ben­son has cre­at­ed an engag­ing but often con­fus­ing­ly dull album, mix­ing strong ele­ments such as his vocals and the more imag­i­na­tive parts of the instru­men­tals with weak­er parts (the lyrics and less inter­est­ing instru­men­tal sec­tions). When these all are com­bined, the gener­ic sec­tions have the dis­ap­point­ing effect of smoth­er­ing many of the thought-pro­vok­ing or cre­ative ones, until all that’s left is a vague impres­sion of the best parts. Ben­son has­n’t cre­at­ed an amaz­ing album with My Old, Famil­iar Friend, but he has cre­at­ed some­thing that takes some gen­uine con­sid­er­a­tion, its many weak­ness­es notwithstanding.

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