Admittedly, it might be a tad insulting to Nashville's countless starving musicians to describe Brendan Benson—ATO recording artist, iPod pitchman, Jack White broham— as a "tough luck" case. But then again, Benson never really fit the mold of the struggling sidewalk troubadour in the first place. For well over a decade, he's been serving up smart, infectious, radio-ready power-pop without any hipster window dressing or self-conscious trendiness. As a result, every new Brendan Benson album sounds like his breakthrough-in-waiting—sharp, accessible, commercially viable. And yet, the cycle continues.
"Thankfully, my records have always gotten generally great reviews," Benson says from his home in Nashville. "The press and the industry and the musicians all seem to like what I do. There's just this small matter of getting it to the people. [Laughs.] The reviews don't translate into record sales or ticket sales really as much as people might think. You know, if you read a nice review in the paper, you might think, 'Oh, he's doing well.' But, with the press, I'm mostly just preaching to the converted."
It's too soon to call Benson's latest album—this summer's My Old, Familiar Friend—a commercial flop. In some ways, it's been his greatest success as a solo artist—charting at No. 110 on the Billboard 200 and getting respectable radio airplay behind the foot-stomping lead single "A Whole Lot Better." It got great reviews, too, of course. But in the larger context of his career, it's clear that Benson had higher hopes for where this album might take him.
"It's been good," he says, "pretty similar to the past solo albums, really. Of course, I thought after The Raconteurs it might pick up. But, I don't know, it hasn't really."
A potential career crossroads if there ever was one, My Old, Familiar Friend was Benson's first solo effort since his two records with The Raconteurs—the Nashville-via-Detroit supergroup he formed with the ever pale and prolific Jack White. That not-so-little side project managed to score two Top 10 albums, a couple Grammy nods and an opening slot on a Bob Dylan tour—ostensibly thrusting Benson into the national spotlight at long last.
"Well, that's what's debatable," says Benson, tuning in the hindsight. "You know, of course, Jack was the most publicized thing about The Raconteurs. And I think, unfortunately, he sort of eclipsed the other guys in the band. And that's not him personally. I think the press did that. The press sort of said, 'Jack White and company' or 'Jack White and his band,' rarely mentioning the other people who had a huge, major part in the music. I'm really proud of my contributions to that band. And it's just a little sad to not be acknowledged for that."
That said, Benson was hardly caught off guard by how the Raconteurs experience played out.
"I knew what I was getting into. I realized I was joining a band with a celebrity in it. And I knew there'd be a lot of attention on him and not on us. And really, I'm used to that. [Laughs.] It wasn't going to be a huge adjustment or anything. But in the end, I suppose, I did feel a little miffed— not in an angry or bitter way—just underappreciated."
Naturally, the best prescription for a bruised rock ego is a little solo success, and both Benson and his new label ATO (Radiohead, My Morning Jacket) felt that My Old, Familiar Friend could generate plenty of that. Benson even went outside his comfort zone in the studio, bringing in hotshot producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters) to give the record a little extra gloss. In the end, Benson got the sound he wanted, and the album's 11 tracks find him at a new peak both as a tunesmith and lyricist. Unfortunately, that's not all it takes to make a hit record in America.
"I've mainly been struggling with the business side of things," Benson laments. "I hired a new manager, and he kind of turned out to be somewhat of a deadbeat. So I fired him and hired a new manager in the middle of this campaign. So that kind of set things back a bit. I mean, I didn't even have a website until about a month ago. It's a little silly."
Finally, as if catching himself in the midst of one too many "I coulda been a contender" speeches, Benson chuckles and admirably adds a postscript to his tale.
"I should say, you know, I have my days where I want to scream or punch something, but mostly, I'm really content. I mean, I'm happy with what I have, and what I have is a great fan base—maybe not large in number, but man, they're great people. They're loyal, they're music fans, and they're not in it for a fleeting, trendy reason. It's a cult following, and I'm able to keep making records because of them."
Still, probably best not to mention that Jack White's latest band, The Dead Weather, debuted at No. 6. The cycle continues.
This curmudgeon misses 328 Performance Hall everytime I see a show at The Cannery
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