When your eyes adjust to the gloomy confines of songwriter Brendan Benson’s living room, the scene is somewhere between the dark-stained woodwork and high ceilings of a Faulknerian parlor (as in William, not Jason) and a matte-aluminum antique futurism of a recording studio that might have produced a midperiod Kinks album.
“The whole thing was recorded in that room, on all my own stuff,” explains Benson, gesturing to the mausoleumlike living room. He’s going on about his latest release, Lapalco, a 12-song disc of homespun power pop.
It’s just past noon and Benson is sitting at his kitchen table with a pack of smokes and a cup of black coffee. Though it’s a typically overcast wintry day, the kitchen is the only room in which the shades are not drawn, making the light from the outside seem too bright. The reclusive Benson describes his living and recording situation as “completely antisocial and xenophobic.”
“You have to be creative because of the limitations,” he continues. “If you want reverb you put a microphone in the clothes chute or something. But the songs get recorded and rerecorded and are all spread out. It’s no snapshot.”
But the results of his critically lauded 1996 major-label debut, One Mississippi, took him out of the public eye for a solid five years. In a just world, the recording would have put Benson on the musical map. One minute Benson was living and writing songs with do-no-wrong pop darling Jason Falkner, being introduced by Tom Petty at a sold-out Troubadour show in LA and seeing girls faint a la Beatlemania at Japanese meet-and-greets. The next minute he was trying to piece together a living by recording local bands and doing odd jobs for “rich, dirty connections to the suburbs.” The failed promise and his tumble from Virgin’s good graces left him saddled with a destroyed ego, sitting in a big dark house in the middle of Detroit, with an obsessive, international cult following.
As tumultuous as his short ride with Virgin was, his relationship with songwriter Falkner, who co-wrote songs on both One Mississippi and Lapalco (aside from background vocals by Benson’s ex-girlfriend) was just as telling.
“We had girlfriends that stayed together and that’s how we really got to know each other. Our relationship now is …” He hesitates. “… Good. It was better. We were great friends when we made the first record and I don’t really hear from him much these days. We have had a rough time writing together. I think the songs we wrote together were the result of a whole lot of tension and pushing and pulling and shoving, which was great for the songs, but not so good on the friendship.”
Even though both of Benson’s records were co-written with Falkner, the true standouts of Lapalco are completely solo statements. His tribute to the strange realities of Detroit life, “My Life in the D” and the Greg Hawkes-esque, keyboard-driven “You’re Quiet” top anything he’s done with a major label or with Falkner.
That Benson’s music wasn’t consumed on a mass scale left a heavy sense of disappointment for him to overcome.
“The worst thing to shake from that situation (with Virgin) is that my mental audience I was writing for became huge,” he admits. “There was just a lot of talk. I’m sure it’s the same kind of talk with any kind of signing and maybe I was naive, but I believed all that. I thought, ‘OK, maybe I can really make it big, really big.’ In retrospect I thought it was never going to happen. I write pop music that isn’t like that. Hopefully it is fun, but it isn’t popular. It isn’t what people buy.”
Maybe Benson’s right. What’s good and what people buy are like night and day. Lapalco’s collection of DIY pop brilliance puts the classic hooks of the Cars and McCartney’s Wings through a filter of self-reflective wit that’s simply too smart and strange and poignant to be hugely commercial.
But things are looking up. Lapalco’s release on upstart New York indie Star Time International (the Walkmen, the French Kicks) was immediately picked up by V2 in Europe, a support tour with the White Stripes is scheduled at the end of March and the national buzz about the album is louder than that which surrounded One Mississippi. Perhaps getting dissed by a huge record company and spending five years recording 12 songs in your living room is the cure for the sophomore slump.
“Being dropped from Virgin had a huge impact on me,” Benson says. “I think when you write something you have a nameless, faceless audience that you write for. They’re not threatening, they’re not judgmental, they’re very nice people. They let you do whatever you want to do. But then I started writing for consumers or managers and A&R people who did have faces, faces that were scary, who had big dollar signs in their eyes. It is hard to shake that and even this record has some pieces of that in it. I’m free from that. I’m on Star Time and it’s whatever I want.”
It is this overriding sense of liberation, this sense of release from the pressure of being at the mercy of some money-grubbing machinery that are recurring themes in Lapalco’s lyrics. When he sings about the ugly parts of the real world revolving outside of his house: “My precious generation is killing their time. Behind their backs I’m slipping through the cracks,” hopefully he knows he’s wrong.Nate Cavalieri is Metro Times’ listings editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org