Here's a piece I wrote for Open Culture on one of Sesame Street's first psychedelic…
Fans of power pop have been watching Brendan Benson’s career since he arrived with a perfect gem of a debut in 1996 with “One Mississippi.” In a perfect world, fans say, Benson would have had a string of pop hits and by now taken his seat as the new Paul McCartney. After his disillusionment with his major label he continued to put out albums, but with a lower profile. It was his partnership with friend Jack White in The Raconteurs that brought Benson back to the national stage. And now he has returned with one of his strongest solo albums, “My Old, Familiar Friend,” packed with melodic invention, sing-along choruses, clever songs structures and a retro-’70s feel from producer Gil Norton that nods to Wings, ELO, and Todd Rundgren.
“I wasn’t all that excited about making a solo record by myself,” he says of the reason for teaming up with Norton (Foo Fighters, Jimmy Eat World). “I gave him most of the responsibilities. After playing in The Raconteurs I didn’t want to go back (to being solo).”
The collaboration has provided Benson with songs that swirl with strings or have their riffs played on vintage synths. “I had a bit more money to hire Gil. I’d never worked with a producer like that before.”
Although Norton provided Benson with the “big time producer” experience, he isn’t press-release-cagey about their spiky relationship. He says right out that he probably wouldn’t work with Norton again.
“We had very different ideas about how songs come about,” he says. “It’s a small thing, but he was adamant about instruments being perfectly in tune. I agree to a point, but there comes a point when things are so perfectly in tune you lose a thickness and a spirit, too. And if I’m tuning every five minutes, I’m not really playing the song.”
Despite the tensions, Benson says he loved having others to jam with. “You can’t jam with yourself,” he laughs. “You can work up a song and then scrap it. You can say, ‘let’s try it slower, or with a different rhythm.'”
That made it easier, he says, to experiment with other instruments, such as having the drums in “Eyes on the Horizon” mimic Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light,” or the synths in “Gonowhere” sound like Wings’ “Venus and Mars.”
And then there’s the songwriting. “Don’t waste your time / On people going nowhere” he sings in “Gonowhere.” Sounds like good advice for someone trying to make it through the music business. Was it written for himself?
“I think so, a lot of it is,” he says. “That happens inevitably. But I had somebody in mind when I wrote it. A girlfriend at the time. But I strayed from the plot a bit and started talking to myself more. Which I like.”
“A Whole Lot Better,” the soaring opening track has Benson singing “I feel a whole lot better when you’re not around” but as the song progresses he winds up singing the opposite.
“That’s true about me,” he says. “In the past I’ve found myself obsessing about, ‘do I want this or don’t I want it?’ Having this conversation in my head. Just being paralyzed. I can barely decide what to eat at a restaurant let alone big life decisions.”
No longer, he says. “A Whole Lot Better” is a whole bunch of years ago. Benson is now married with a baby on the horizon. He laughs at how things have changed.
“I like to think I can make decisions now.”
When: 9 tonight
Where: Velvet Jones, 423 State St.
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