Brendan Benson | Alternative to Love (V2)

The melodies are instantly catchy, the vocals are helium-hyper at times, and the songs are deeper than you realize on the first listen.

After major-label bullshit infamously delayed the release of Brendan Benson’s 2002 critical darling Lapalco—the follow-up to his debut, 1996’s power-pop sugar rush One Mississippi—Benson soon discovered that indie-label bullshit (Startime International, to be precise) can be piled just as deep. Luckily for fans, Benson’s strange luck finds his long overdue third record being released by V2, the European branch of Virgin Records—the same label that unceremoniously dropped him after One Mississippi didn’t sell a million copies. Confused? No matter. More than two long years later, music nerds and record store clerks are sort of smiling and exchanging knowing hipster nods to celebrate the release of the stunning (and stunningly late) new Benson record, Alternative to Love.

The great news for fans is that Alternative to Love sounds exactly like a Brendan Benson record. The melodies are instantly catchy, the vocals are helium-hyper at times, and the songs are deeper than you realize on the first listen. And it feels like a fully realized album, unlike Lapalco, which often felt like a jarring mix of two great EPs—one of lo-fi acoustic ballads, one of up-tempo power-pop gems—after the pure, spiky adrenaline shot of One Mississippi. While AtL has just as many acoustic-based ballads as its predecessor, the new album’s assured and adventurous production remains a cohesive element throughout.

The album’s opener and first single, the upbeat new wave guitar rocker “Spit It Out,” is pure pop bliss—all clever lyrics, huge choruses, and insanely memorable hooks. The cleverness extends to the sparkling production as well, as a theremin and an alarm clock both make memorable appearances. That song and the next, “Cold Hands Warm Heart,” were featured prominently in Benson’s last appearance in town—an acoustic set at The Pageant opening for Badly Drawn Boy this past October—and hearing them again on the album felt like a welcome call from an old friend. The reoccurring keyboard motif in the latter is insidious, and the stickiest of melodies. I know what you’re thinking: This is a great start. And it keeps getting better. Next is another obvious single—or, in the current market, the next obvious Volkswagen jingle—“Feel Like Myself Again,” which could be a spiritual sister of Lapalco’s best track, “Tiny Spark,” awesome moog intro included.

Benson produced and recorded this album entirely at his home in Detroit, and the intoxicating freedom that comes with unlimited studio time is no more apparent than on his Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production of “The Pledge.” Sounding like a revved-up “And Then He Kissed Me,” it’s an instant classic—and as powerful as any of the songs that inspired it. Eschewing a guitar solo for a verse of ecstatic ba ba bas, this is a lighthearted but completely sincere mash note to love songs circa-1964.

Some of Benson’s best moments appear in AtL’s less hopped-up tunes, most notably on the moody piano and synthesizer–driven pop of “Biggest Fan.” Opening with the line “Electric eyes and a seesaw brain/The ghost of you and a phantom pain,” and ending with a haunting chorus of sha-shays, this is heartbreak at its most vivid. And a perfect pairing with the next song, “Flesh and Bone,” an oddly groovy sad song about chasing that proverbial girl who always gets away. As he sings schoolyard-esque rhymes in a delicate, John Lennon–dipped harmony—“Little lamb that you are/Now you’ve stumbled too far”—to this girl, a wash of mandolin and timpani creeps into the mix, and the results are gorgeously epic.

Alternative to Love doesn’t sound front-loaded in the least—something Lapalco suffered from slightly. These are 12 songs made to be listened to 12 years from now. Reserve space in your iPod today; there should be plenty of room once you clear out those Bravery tracks. You remember them, right?

 

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