Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Brendan Benson - The Alternative to Love review

Brendan BensonThe Alternative to Love (2005, V2 Records/Startime International)

Brendan Benson had six years to work on 2002’s Lapalco after getting screwed over by a major label (as is commonly the case, isn’t it?). Writing and recording much of the album with power-pop guru Jason Falkner, Benson produced a sunny pop rock masterpiece that’s continuing its countrywide creep into the album collections of girls for whom I’ve made mix CDs.

With The Alternative to Love, Benson’s follow-up to Lapalco, he took little more than a third of the time to complete and release this new album as he did the last one. So you can imagine that it’s not going to have quite the same impact and level of intensity that went into the comeback record. The simple fact is that if anyone owns all three of Brendan Benson’s albums (for which they’d get a handshake from me), this new isn’t going to be their favorite.

Yet, The Alternative to Love is still a terrific record with some of the most addictive rock songs of the year.

The first four songs are the standouts, the songs that without question make whatever price you pay for the CD worth it, from the “what’s on your miii-iii-iii-iii-iiind now” chorus of “Spit It Out” to the catchy synth melodies that start out “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)” and “Feel Like Myself,” not to mention Benson’s razor-sharp lyrics for those songs. Then there’s “Alternative to Love” with its party time drum beats that will be familiar to anyone who picked up a copy of Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled album last year. This song is the pop centerpiece of the album, and I’m probably wrong, but I swear I detect Benson’s old friend Jason Falkner signing back-up near the end of the song.

It seems like many critics have expressed their disappointment in the second half of the album, which I think really comes down to only one or two weak tracks and perhaps a track order that could have been arranged better. After the stirring “The Pledge,” we’ve had five great rock songs in a row that are suddenly followed by three slower, pensive and similar-sounding songs. The result is like starting off a road trip speeding down the freeway and suddenly getting caught in gridlocked traffic. The tracks aren’t that bad, but the track order makes this part of the album feel sluggish. Perhaps if a more upbeat, slightly less turgid song had been put in place of “Biggest Fan,” this wouldn’t have been a problem.

Then, we are speeding along again as the soaring guitar hook that starts out “Get It Together” which interrupts the end of “Flesh & Bone.” It seems the album is back to its former pace, except that next comes “Gold Into Straw,” a rock song lacking in Benson’s usual knack for melody, and which pretty much leaves me wanting to listen to “Get It Together” a second time instead. “Gold Into Straw” is a song that I feel just doesn’t quite fit in tonally with the rest of the album either, with its dark and sober lyrics lacking in the wit and insight that most of the other songs boast… especially the next track, “What I’m Looking For,” which manages to be a song that’s both bouncy and poignant at once, with Benson’s wonderful rhyming couplets and dynamic of warring ego and introspection that makes for a fascinating personality profile, especially in a song like this.

“Between Us” finishes out the album with more of an ellipses than a period, as opposed to the pulse-pounding coda of “Jet Lag” that he used to finish out Lapalco. “Between Us” gives more of a sense of continuation beyond this album, the hope that another one is coming… and here’s hoping that it is and soon.

From Brendan Benson's official homepage:
Brendan Benson - What I'm Looking For.mp3
(to download, Right-Click and "Save Target As...")


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