Detroiter Brendan Benson has long been standing in the shadows of popularity. He found a friend in Jack White while working as an engineer on Loretta Lynn’s widely hailed album Van Lear Rose (in fact the two are collaborating together as I write this), wrote songs for a host of others, and released two albums that didn’t quite make a large enough blip on the radar. With The Alternative to Love, Benson’s third full length, he is primed and ready to step out of those shadows and into the full glare of the spotlight of popularity. That is, if there’s any justice.
The songs on The Alternative to Love can call up power chords from the 90’s, blue collar rock of the 80’s, the popular sounds of seventies AM radio, and the height of the bubblegum 60’s. What is truly a testament to Benson’s skill is that he fuses all of these into one album without it sounding disjointed and scattered. Opener “Spit it Out” recalls Squeeze at their best, Benson’s voice sounding mightily close to Glenn Tillbrook’s. I kept waiting to hear about mussels. The harmonies in “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)” put Benson on a level with Ed Harcourt’s beautifully sung 70’s pop.
“The Pledge” is a song that would have made Phil Spector proud. It’s rhythmic 4/4 drums, bells in the foreground, and sunny feel with a dark side make it sound like the Shangri-la’s classic “Leader of the Pack”. Benson’s dark side comes out in lyrics like “I always wind up screwed without a kiss.” This album is the complete package, great songwriting, a full sound from varied instruments, diverse pop influences, and loads of ambition.
Unfortunately, the only thing that managed to conquer Benson’s sunny disposition seemed to be the Postal Service. And no, I don’t mean the Ben Gibbard/Jimmy Tamborello project, I mean the actual Postal Service. My copy came in with its case obliterated, and with a few tracks all but unlistenable. On some of those tracks, however, there was an almost Tamborello `hiccupy’ feel to it, although that wasn’t what Benson had in mind. Even with that disappointment, the album is a thoroughly enjoyable diversion, and one of the best pure pop records of the year.