Brendan Benson‘s 2002 album Lapalco is a corker. A powerpop album bearing the influences of David Bowie and The Carpenters alongside the usual suspects (Big Star, Beach Boys et al), its catchy charms remain undiminished seven years on. Since then, Benson has released a solid-if-slightly-inferior follow-up – 2005’s The Alternative To Love – and collaborated with pal Jack White on two albums by The Raconteurs.
The Benson/White collaboration worked because Benson’s poppier tendencies served to kerb White’s blusier bluster. Only the two of them will know exactly how the songwriting duties were divvied up, but their best (and best-known) song, Steady As She Goes, sounds unmistakeably like a Benson solo number.
Then again, The Raconteurs was surely a symbiotic relationship: the project allowed Benson to indulge his jammier, more freewheeling side while stockpiling more straightforwardly poppier compositions for this, his first album in four years.
In light of this, the title of My Old Familiar Friend could be read as Benson’s fond description of his regular genre. This is an unpretentious, gimmick-free work, one which stands or falls on the strength of its tunes. It’s free from the slightly glutinous production that occasionally clogged up The Alternative To Love, but fans of Lapalco will be disappointed not to hear that album’s rickety lo-fi qualities replicated once again.
This is a good, but far from great, album. It starts strongly, with opener A Whole Lot Better achieving the same initial sugar-rush as Spit It Out provided on The Alternative To Love. Second track, Eyes On The Horizon, has a groovy, loping verse melody and a big, satisfying chorus. Any innovation is at a premium here, but a couple of tracks deviate from its default meat-and-potatoes guitar rock. Garbage Day luxuriates in a saccharine string arrangement, while Feel Like Taking You Home’s hypnotic organ groove lends the song a sinister edge, making the titular refrain sound more like a threat than a declaration of affection.
After that, laziness sets in. A fair few of the songs on My Old Familiar Friend seem phoned-in, being overly reliant upon stock AA/BB rhyming schemes and unadventurous arrangements; the likes of You Make A Fool Out Of Me and Misery are almost aggressively bland. Peppier numbers like Posed And Ready and Don’t Wanna Talk are decent additions to the powerpop canon, but there’s nothing here that could be described as essential.
My Old Familiar Friend seems to be an album with modest aspirations which, for the most part, it achieves. But for followers of Benson’s earlier work, it’s unlikely to supplant Lapalco from its role as the powerpop fan’s musical comfort blanket of choice.