Brendan Benson: Low Key [Album Review]

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Brendan Benson
Low Key
Schnitzel Records [2022]

Brendan Benson released his seventh solo album, Dear Life, early in 2020, and even though he played all the instruments when recording he’d put a band together and was ready to hit the road and introduce fans to his latest songs, when the pandemic upended touring for everyone. And while isolation can strain relationships and leave one feeling lonely, Benson has a home studio and the skill set to turn hardship, disappointment and a broken heart into a fine pop song when he puts his mind to it.

While Benson is also co-writer and shares vocals and guitar duties with Jack White in the Raconteurs, it’s obvious that their solo sounds lean in entirely different directions. While White released an aggressive electric nu-metal-sounding album followed by an acoustic folk and blues release this year, Benson’s power pop approach draws heavily on the vocabulary of classic rock. In fact, Benson’s cover here of Gerry Rafferty’s classic “Right Down the Line,” feels like a note for note remake, maybe punching up the rhythm track with stronger guitar accents, if anything a brighter, more contemporary take on a old favorite.

In Benson’s promotional bio for the album, the mastering engineer Greg Calbi compares these songs to 80’s band Crowded House and Squeeze, and he’s right about the melodic pop feel, the crisp feel and harmonies, but I suspect he’s too young to hear all the 60’s & 70’s nods. For instance, “I Missed the Plane” has a decidedly Beatlesque feel, while “Whatever’s On My Mind” is a total shout out to The Who with a catchy pop song in the middle sections. “People Grow Apart” opens with a light-hearted acoustic take on a pop break-up song (“We don’t have to be enemies, but we can’t be friends), but then the guitars come in with a big fun riff that takes over the rest of the tune, creating a yin/yang tension between the sad lyrics and almost joyful pop song. It’s worthy of Lindsey Buckingham’s Fleetwood Mac best.

The album opens with “Ain’t No Good,” a piano pop rocker with tinny hip-hop influenced percussion track, but Benson’s admonition to “stop messing around” and a catchy melodic hook makes it work. There’s a bit of Nashville feel to “Whole Lot Nothing,” smart America twist on a break-up song, with a bit of horn support. The disc closes with two that tie up any remaining loose ends. “All In” is a declaration of independence, framed by a direct pop riff that builds toward an electric guitar solo, while there’s a jazzier sophisticated feel in the bass line of “Something a Little Like Home,” a seductive pandemic built on the assurance that “we have everything we need right here.”

By this point, it’s more than clear that Brendan Benson has the chops to stand on his own, that he writes catchy, smart pop songs, and plays all the instruments is an added plus. While this 8-song collection may feel “Low Key” there’s plenty of good music here, whether you’re trapped alone in the house, and feel like inviting over some party folk to listen to some tunes.

“Ain’t No Good” / “Whatever’s On My Mind” / “I Missed My Plane”

Fountains of Wayne / Lennon & McCartney / Elton John

Dear Life (2020) / You Were Right (2013) / What Kind Of World (2012)

Official Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Bandcamp | Schnitzel Records

Brian Q. Newcomb

Video Premiere: Tim Reisert – “Viewfinder”

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