On “What Kind of World,” the opening title track of his latest solo album, Brendan Benson laments about being, “So looked over, so underrated” over a somber organ and appregiated guitar chords, and you can’t help to think that the guy kind of has a point.
Since 1996, Benson has released five good—at least one great (2002’s Lapalco)—records of guitar rock that seamlessly fuse the hooks and sweetness of Big Star with the more gruff riffs of his Michigan brethren The Stooges and the twang of The Band and Gram Parsons. However, it is still safe to say that far fewer people would know him if it were not for his work with The Raconteurs and his friendship with Jack White. Benson’s solo work never really garnered the attention or acclaim that it has often deserved. Unfortunately, What Kind of World, a record that boasts its fair share of excellent moments, may not do a whole lot to change that. Essentially, he’s made another good Brendan Benson album, something that for one reason or another that hasn’t yet been good enough for a mass audience.
Benson continues to showcase his skills as a multi-instrumentalist. Whether he’s at the piano bench on the fantastic “Bad for Me,” a haunting Elton John-like ballad, or bashing out power chords a la Elvis Costello in the bouncy “Happy Most of The Time,” you get the feeling that guy could turn out a listenable song using a sauce pan if you asked him nicely. But it’s when he goes beyond just being listenable to being downright infectious that his talent truly becomes clear. Though there are fewer of these moments on WKOW than some of his stronger records, they’re still here; they just take a little more time to reveal themselves.
The Britpop-infused licks of “Here in the Deadlights” set up Benson’s trademark pipes to take front and center for a hook-heavy chorus before dropping off into a trippy bridge, throwing the listener for a loop. It’s a perfect example of what he has come to do best—take familiar pop music, push the listener close the edge, only to pull them back to safety just before they fall. Same goes for “Met Your Match,” a two-and-a-half-minute nugget complete with Weezer-esque “Oh oh oh’s;” the spacey “Thru the Ceiling” and “Come On,” which sounds like the best Nada Surf jam in some time. If he wasn’t actively trying a little bit to sound like Matthew Caws, then this is a very eerie coincidence.
The record closes with a sonic nod to his adopted home of Nashville. On “On the Fence,” a mid-tempo strummer with barroom piano, Benson declares that he’s “never been a fighter or a lover, never thought that either made much sense.” It’s a pleasant song, but does beg the question that if he isn’t a lover and isn’t a fighter, then who exactly is he? Alas, What Kind of World doesn’t lead to any great revelation about the man himself, but Benson is probably okay with that, and listeners should be too. Sometimes songs are just songs, and the bulk of the ones here sound pretty darn good.