Sound: Brendan Benson's fourth solo album is a melodic, polished, intelligent-yet punchy affair. The simplified, messy diversion that was the music of the Raconteurs is thankfully rejected for Benson's usual gleaming classicism. Lest anyone launch the standard Power-pop criticism of remaking essentially the same album at him, Brendan branches out sonically here (one positive of his Racs sojourn being a bigger budget for this LP) while continuing to polish his cunning lyrics. That aside, his impeccable influences are on display, with a Paul McCartney/Wings vibe to many tunes, and A Joe Jackson feel to others. but those are perennial Benson Preceptors. This album reveals a love of Motown ("Garbage day") and string backed ballads. // 8
Lyrics: Benson's lyrics are always very clever, Running a fine line between rhyming games and meaningful expression that few songwriters are focused enough to operate in. As per usual, though, many of them are boy/girl relationship songs of misery, but done with a high measure of originality. Benson seems to continue to improve his singing, showing off his very wide range on the opener. speaking of which, an overview:
01.A Whole Lot Better: the opening song and first single is both tightly put together and long in form. The title and end line of the first verse seem to make a direct reference to the Byrds 1965 classic "Feel A whole lot Better". Benson's arrangement is more indebted to Todd Rundgren, as well as Macca and the Who. A soaring chorus and catchy rhythm make up for a rather cloying sentiment and thin irony.
02.Eyes On The Horizon: an unusual lyric (seemingly from the point of view of a paranoid schizophrenic) and another catchy, McCartney-esque chorus distinguish this tune. Unfortunately they don't mesh terribly well.
03.Garbage Day: somewhat of a departure for Benson, if a laudable one. An enjoyable Motown Pastiche, ( the bass is Jamersonian after "Sugar Pie..") with strings to match, all with a lyric featuring an unusual metaphor for a breakup.
04.Gonowhere: one of its author's most overt tributes to 70's era Macca, this song is also one of his more polished lyrics.
05.Feel Like Taking You Home: cowritten with former Waxwing Dean Fertita, This tune combines a feverish trance-dance vibe with (as has been pointed out elsewhere) the general late style of the Moody Blues. Effectively done, with a climactic creshendo.
06.You Make A Fool Out Of Me: another number featuring a string section, it otherwise includes only its author on guitar and piano, setting a heartbreaking lyric to a melody faintly similar to his earlier "Just Like Me".
07.Poised And Ready: a fairly sharp lyric is here set to a pulsing stop time melody that sounds unfortunately Weezeresque.
08.Dont Wanna Talk: a tongue-in-cheek lyric and uptempo arrangement featuring a resonant drum-bass sound characterise this excellent Joe Jackson influenced tune.
09.Misery: if anything more down on his luck than in (8) Benson here jumps in to more musical extroversion to contrast against the lyric. intro is not unlike "thank you friends" by big star, though Joe Jackson is again the main influence.
10.Lesson Learned: the only track on the album completely recorded and produced by Benson alone. As such, it, like many of its equally plaintive siblings on the second side of The Alternative To Love, makes little impression.
11.Borrow: a calamitous closer with a rising octave figure not unlike the theramin on the Beach Boys' "Wild Honey". A searing guitar solo brings this one to a climax. // 8
Overall Impression: Take overall, "Friend" is generally stronger than Benson's last album, The Alternative To Love. While only a few tracks cut deeper than that LP's first four songs, the rather tired, minor key ballads that steered Love into lethargic slogging (10) are largely avoided. Nothing here is distasteful, with only (7) being mildly unfavourable.
Benson naturally and pleasingly expands into music with orchestral and soulful colour, proving he's more versatile than others he's been compared to (such as the comparatively sickly Matthew Sweet) without losing much of the energy on which good Pop relies. whilst LAPALCO remains his masterpiece, "Friend is a worthy companion to that LP. // 8