Brendan Benson – The Alternative to Love

Some fellows who make music for a living have figured out that singing songs about girls isn’t exactly the least noble activity to be undertaken on this blue ball we call home. With some it’s just vitriol, and with others it’s a novel form of pop psychology. In fact, rock and roll would have withered on the vine and died a most uninteresting death long ago had it not been for the relational foibles of many a baffled songwriter or two. Take one look into the catalogue of say, a Matthew Sweet (a guy who be logically perceived as having paved the way for Brendan Benson and those of his ilk), whose songs about girls ranged from starry-eyed (“Girlfriend”) to viciously bitter (“Devil with the Green Eyes,” “The Ugly Truth” and the rest of Altered Beast for that matter) to facetious (“We’re the Same”) to mature and grown-up (“What Matters”), and it’s plain to see that the male perception of the fairer gender is just as tumultuous as we see female emotions to be. Matthew Sweet is only one guy out of thousands who have been perplexed by the opposite sex. Brendan Benson, a talented popster in his own right, is yet another, and the end result of both his musical toiling and emotional turmoil, The Alternative to Love, is ample proof that one need not mope in the wake of failed romantic pursuits. Dang, it’s even downright fun. Lovelorn guys without songwriting talent only wish they had an outlet like this. Wait, that’s me.

The Alternative to Love is a veritable Pez dispenser of uber-catchy, driving guitar pop tunes, one song right after the other that mask even the most jaded sentiment in a smashing riff or massive hook. It’s difficult not to become lost in the bright, lively instrumentation and miss the lyrical content, regardless of how contradictory or apropos it might be. Benson is a master pop craftsman in an era that badly needs them; it’s as if he’s cherry-picked the best quality from any number of guitar pop legends and dropped them all into his sound. A timely synthesizer fill here, a tasty harmony there, and oh, the guitars. The guitars are just everywhere. To think he’s only on his third album. Without the flubbed release of his first album, One Mississippi, you’d probably know who Brendan Benson was by now. But as it is, this is a great starting point.

“Spit It Out” bolts from the starting gate with a sugar rush of overdubbed harmonies, Rick Nielsen-esque riffs and just a dash of that punkish spunk. “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)” drops in some flavorful acoustics and what sounds like a xylophone melody; odd as it sounds, it totally works. The title track is about as perfect as a pop song gets, opening with a strummed acoustic but adding a layer every four bars through the first verse, until we’ve got an electric, some handclaps, a tambourine and a bass to usher us into the chorus. It’s just plain brilliant, in a “wow, how didn’t I think of that?” sort of way. And it’s got an appropriately bittersweet, resigned message to boot. Repeated listens will inevitably ensue.

The rest of album ably displays Benson’s strengths to equal degrees; in his hands, even the Spectorian blast of “The Pledge” sounds fresh. (C’mon, who hasn’t tried the Spector homage thing already?) As radio fades into the sunset to something much more inferior than the closing theme to Indiana Jones, it’s refreshing to see a modern artist take us back to the day when radio didn’t suck quite as badly. Like Homer Simpson said, “we all know that rock achieved perfection in 1974.” Granted, many have attempted this trick, but very few these days do it as well as Brendan Benson. This much indulging of the sweet tooth usually requires a trip to the dentist. But not this time.

(V2 Records)