If one had to speculate as to why Brendan Benson, one-half of the creative jet engine of The Raconteurs and solo artist in his own right, named his third solo album My Old, Familiar Friend, one would have to guess it’s his cleverly crafted nod to all that shimmers and rocks from the 1970s.
Obviously, Benson and his cohorts are no strangers to the decade where rock hit puberty and started rebelling against itself and many of its values in a wailing, sonic boom-inducing fashion. But where Jack White and Jack Lawrence would go with The Dead Weather, Benson would take a different route in the journey of revitalizing and recapturing that lightning and swagger generated by the likes of Led Zeppelin or even The Who.
The overall feel of the album is something new, especially from the darker tones of Consolers Of The Lonely. It’s unabashedly in the vein of great ’70s stadium rock. And while the past few years may have been spent praying at the alter of Jimmy Page and maybe even some great bluesmen of the mid-20th century, Benson instead focuses his child-like devotion on someone a bit different: Paul McCartney.
My Old, Familiar Friend is full of the Wings-esque stadium songs, all in the structure of overcomplicated pop songs. These are grandiose declarations of love lost and gained, and the complexities of being a human, far removed from the obscure, often artsy lyrical content and musical construction of his Raconteurs bandmates. Benson goes so far as including more bubble gum pop/psychedelic music throughout the album; the saccharine onslaught is especially prevalent in the opening track “A Whole Lot Better”. One also might make comparisons to Gary Glitter, but doing so adds a context of cheesiness and rigid tactics from some kind of carny; make no mistake, these are genuine pop gems filtered through the ambiance and open air of arena rock magic.
The album is stacked with standout songs. Two of the better ones may throw off even older Benson fans. “Garbage Day” begins and leaves you nodding your head in a befuddled kind of way. The track is a Motown-ready slam of Al Green soul and rock and R&B, but it takes that satiny soul and distills it like Outkast might, keeping the gleam and the feel but changing up the tempo, bridging it to a more modern sound. Almost as surprising is “Feel Like Taking You Home”. Here, Benson takes the vibe and sex appeal of some lusty funk song and shows what The Raconteurs do to really shine: Add a spin of power or fury and drive some emotion to move along a sweet, sultry rhythm.
Buzzing on the other end of the spectrum is a song like “Poised and Ready”, the album’s Elvis Costello (circa This Year’s Model)-endorsed track. It’s a blast from the trail end of a time where rock and its attitude had to learn to express itself in the new romantic movement. Though Benson hardly sticks around long enough, as he returns to more straight up rock with one of the album’s highlights, “Gonowhere”. Here he channels the spirit of The Beatles’ “Come Together”, with a similar thumping beat that’s indicative of a chameleon style of music both trippy and heavy and unattainable by most restrictive labels or genres.
This album truly is a tour of the ’70s; from the aforementioned works of unbelievable merit to others that invoke spacey Pink Floyd (“Lesson Learned”) to even the era-friendly calls of woeful confusion and heartbreak that hop along via acoustic guitar smoothness (“You Make A Fool Out Of Me”). Benson went against the grain by experimenting some, but with an authority few artists in his respected genre carry. In other words, he knows how “it’s” really done. He’s trying something progressive while still working as steadily as he can without losing himself or his audience. That, if anything, is the mark of a true solo artist who can juggle a group and his own aspirations.
Undeniably, Jack White will always set the music world on fire. Whether it’s with a new band or solo work, he is modern day rock’s king and savior to many. But with this effort, Benson has proven that his dedication to growth and re-imagining of the dazzling ’70s and beyond could put him into the fast track of topping playlists and record collections of rock fans across the world. It may even bring light to his previous solo releases. He’s no Jack White, but he might not have to be.