Sometime in Denton around 1997, there briefly existed an independent record store in the Carriage Square shopping center whose name is now lost to obscurity. After the Sound Warehouse closed on Fry, it was one of the few places where a music fan could go and browse close to UNT campus. I'm quite sure that they were aware of this, too, because the store had a loose system in place for suggesting up-and-coming artists. In most stores, this would take the form of haphazardly sharpie-scrawled endcap claiming that “employee [x] (who you don’t know, but under whose authority you should unconditionally bow) suggests artist [y] (simply because we said so).” This store was a little different, and I’m not sure how they did their research, but at least in the case of me and Brendan Benson, it worked out pretty decently.
At the time I was an avid fan of Ben Folds Five, and as I was browsing through their section, I ran across a label suggesting Benson. I glanced over and found his full-length debut One Mississippi, and I bought it on a relative whim. It subsequently became a personal favorite that I spread far and wide amongst my friends with a near- evangelical fervor. Since then, he has consistently proven to be one of my favorite power-pop solo artists.
Early in his career, Benson projected a charismatic Weezeresque slackerishness that seemed to contradict his effortlessly clever songwriting. Due to the magic of YouTube, I stumbled across this 1996 French TV performance of the lead-off track from One Mississippi. This, my friends, is a flawed gem.
Now, quiz time. Were there any emerging bands or artists worth their salt in the late 90s that did not get dropped by their label? The answer is no: it was the industry standard at the time. Benson, like Wilco, Jon Brion, and many others, had to deal with this type of malarkey, and for a time it seemed that the raven might have croaked "nevermore" on him. Finally, though, in 2001, Lapalco was released. It was little less explicitly aggressive than its predecessor, but it did show a marked increase in Benson’s already impressive songwriting prowess and emotive capacity while preserving his seemingly lackadaisical persona. Life in the D was one of the more reflective songs from this album.
In 2005, he largely shed his carefree demeanor in favor of a more polished musical approach on The Alternative to Love. I have plans for a more focused blog post on this one in the future, so I’ll save it, but its 2007 successor, My Old, Familiar Friend, continued in this somewhat more mature vein. In either case, the progression in his sound suited him incredibly well, and both of these albums are, again, personal favorites. Is it very, very difficult to pick a standout track from My Old, Familiar Friend, but this crunchy little tidbit always seems to hit me where I live.
Aside from his obviously freewheeling approach to songcraft, Benson has an astonishing consistency to his work that he continues to innovate and improve upon. Although he can place a beautifully introspective folk ballad right alongside a ripping self-conscious punk-pop anthem that would force Green Day out of their front seat on the bus (even on their best day), Benson’s albums always have a particular character and they clearly progress from one to the next. If you are interested in Benson’s oeuvre, I think that the best experience might come by starting at the beginning and traveling through his catalog chronologically, but you can get any one of them with very little fear of a dud.
Despite having such a long and, I think, artistically successful career at this point, Benson remains frustratingly relegated to the fringes. So, being such a longtime fan of Benson, I get a little defensive when he now is referred to as “the other guy from the Raconteurs.” Everything Benson does now seems to revolve around his participation in that band. It’s not like he came out of nowhere. While I accept that Jack White is more visible, and I think that he is genuinely talented, I’m not quite ready to call him a genius. I think that Benson’s track record, on the other hand, ranks him amongst my favorite artists, which exceeds a mere respect for his talent.