It still boggles my mind that as big as The Raconteurs were, many people have no clue who Brendan Benson is (or The Greenhornes for that matter). When most people think of The Raconteurs they think of Jack White, and that’s pretty much it. Which is a shame because not only did Brendan Benson co-front the group with White, he co-wrote every original song the group performed. And what’s even a bigger shame is that a lot of people are missing out on some absolutely great music that Benson has put out in his solo work. His newest album, What Kind of World, is another shining example of his power pop songwriting prowess.
Unlike his earlier albums, particularly Lapalco and The Alternative to Love, the material on What Kind of World didn’t immediately grab me. However, since it came out last week, I have given the album many listens and it has really grown on me. So much so, that I’ve pretty much been listening to it non-stop. What’s different about this album compared to his previous work is that you can definitely hear the influence of other artists and bands. This may seem like a negative, but for me it’s made the album that much more enjoyable, because Benson is album to take familiar musical styles and still come up with an original sound.
There are a handful of tracks that really remind me of certain artists. The most obvious example to me is “No One Else but You,” sounding like a mash-up of Band on the Run-era Paul McCartney and All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison, with the latter being extremely evident. I mean, the refrain of this song could’ve been lifted from All Things Must Pass, with a wall-of-sound horn section, a Harrison-esque slide guitar, and a chorus of voices singing “No one else but you!” over and over again at the end of the song. The verses, especially the second, seem to have been plucked from McCartney’s mini-epic “Band on the Run,” having a calm, almost barren, feel that totally clashes with the feel of the chorus. Still, the fact that he is able to combine these two styles together and come out with a very quality (and catchy) song is a testament to how well Benson understands how to write music.
Since he recently toured with them, it’s not surprising that there is at least one song that sounds like The Posies. “Thru the Ceiling,” is that song, and has John Auer and Ken Stringfellow’s fingerprints all over it, feeling like it was extracted from their 1993 release, Frosting on the Beater. I actually would not be surprised if the two actually played on the recording (they are listed in the liner notes as having played on the album, but not listed for any specific songs). “Happy Most of the Time,” is another song that has echoes other another artist, this time it’s Jason Falkner, who worked with Benson on his first album, One Mississippi. Though Benson has always kept Falkner’s influence close to the vest, this track is incredibly reminiscent of Falkner’s early solo work.
Still, most of the album is pure Brendan Benson, which means lots of well-crafted power pop laden with super-catchy hooks. The opening title track, “What Kind of World,” is a prime example of this. Though it begins on a semi-dark note through the first verse, the song kicks into gear once the chorus starts, and it doesn’t look back. The chorus is beyond catchy (having been in my head for the past three days now), and the second verse is everything a power pop fan should love about the genre, with crunchy guitars and some vintage “woo-woo-woo’s” in the background vocals. “Light of Day” is another driving power pop track, but it’s the bridge that sticks out in this song. Flowing seamlessly out of the second chorus, the bridge bursts out of the song with soaring background vocals that are both beautiful and kickass at the same time. It only lasts 15 seconds, but it makes the song.
“Here in the Deadlights” and “Come On” are both vintage Brendan Benson, harking back to both One Mississippi and Lapalco. Both are energetic and filled with driving distorted guitars, and multi-layered vocals, two things that Benson is fantastic at creating. “Met Your Match,” is just as energetic as those two tracks, but teeters on the realm of being pop-punk. If not for Benson’s incessantly melodic voice and the background “Oh, oh, oh’s” during the chorus, this song could easily fit into a Green Day or Blink-182 set, or at the very least Jimmy Eat World.
Brendan Benson can also write some great pop ballads as well. “Bad for Me,” the second track on the album, sounds like it could be part of a rock opera. It’s emotional, well written and arranged, and soars during the choruses. I can easily see this being the moment when a protagonist loses his love and things are going all wrong, so he stands in the rain and sings his heart out. Yea, that’s how well produced this song is.
The most interesting and endearing song on the album is its finale, “On the Fence,” which features (and was co-written by) Ashley Monroe. Sounding like a barroom honk-tonk, the song is just plain fun. The lyrics speak of simplistic romance, which is amplified with the presence of Monroe’s stunningly beautiful voice, while the melody and backbeat make you want to sway back and forth clapping your hands on the 2 and 4. It’s a show closer, and though it may seem out of place in the context of the album, it’s still a great way to end an album, because it leaves the listener with a smile on their face and joyful music in their ears.
Ever since I first heard one of his songs, I knew Brendan Benson could write great music, but I will honestly say I that I was a bit worried after his last release, My Old, Familiar Friend; it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t nearly as good as his other material. What Kind of World has quelled any fear I had about his songwriting. The album is damn good, and there are some absolutely fantastic musical moments within. I can never get enough of good power pop, and this album is filled with it. Maybe that’s why I can’t stop listening to this album.