3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Those who only know singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Brendan Benson from playing shotgun to Jack White in the guitar-heavy Raconteurs have been exposed to just one aspect of the talented artist.
The Detroit-bred Benson has been releasing solid, imaginative, power-pop albums intermittently since 1996. While they have been well received critically, nothing clicked for him commercially. So the gig with White’s side project was a major step toward wider recognition, helped by his 2020 Dear Life being released on White’s Third Man label.
Benson was ready to tour that impressive April 2020 disc until the world shut down, putting the kibosh on those plans for him and virtually every other working musician. This late 2022 collection is the result of staying home and putting his free time to good use.
It’s a solo album in the truest sense of that word.
Benson plays every instrument, sang, recorded it in his Nashville studio, and did the initial production. As its title implies, this dials down much of the tougher guitar rocking displayed on many of his seven previous sets. Instead, these eight songs represent a more subdued Kinks/Crowded House style where melody and lyrics rule.
Certainly, time off the road has created some serious introspection. He sings in the opening “Ain’t No Good” that he made a mess of things and pissed off everyone / Oh no what have I become / A lonely man who’s pushed away everyone over programmed drums and a sweet/sour chorus. On the Ray Davies/McCartney-styled “I Missed the Plane” he continues that self-reflection by singing And I’ll look back on my life and see it all so clearly / Every wrong that I done and everyone that I’ve wronged. It’s meshed with a bittersweet melody that almost obscures the darker lyrical impulses.
Benson cranks up Pete Townshend’s power chords for “Whatever’s on My Mind,” a song that would have fit on The Who by Numbers. A lovely take on Gerry Rafferty’s somewhat forgotten 70s classic “Right Down the Line” is an interesting change-up, although he plays it straight without enhancing or improving on the original. Another cover, “All In” from rapper Nasty C, which Benson interprets in a singer/songwriter style, shows how wide his influences are.
There’s Nick Lowe’s inspiration on the lovely ballad, “Whole Lotta Nothin,’” and the disc closes with a poignant song about the loneliness of the road (something he hasn’t had to be concerned about lately) on the emotional folk/pop of “Something a Little Like Home.” Here he sings in a reserved voice And it feels like I’ve just been driving and there is no end in sight/Never seem to be arriving I’ve been leaving all my life.
At just eight tracks that don’t break 30 minutes (two of which he didn’t write), this is frustratingly short, especially since he had two years to work on more material. But Benson is in wonderful form throughout and the highlights of “Low Key” enhance an existing, generally under-the-radar catalog that listeners who enjoy what is here would do well to explore.
Brendan Benson credit: Guillaume Lechat / Pavement PR