Brendan Benson has been cranking out brilliant pieces of ornate popcraft for years. But the third track on his new album still stands out. The arrangement brings old-school Motown to mind, with a surging bed of strings. And it accompanies a torch-song tale of heartbreak that's ... well, a little twisted:
If she throws her heart away
I'll be there on garbage day
To sift through what's left, I guess
To sort through the loneliness ...
That's "Garbage Day," from Benson's new solo album "My Old, Familiar Friend" (ATO Records), one of 11 delectable slices of pop goodness. The album is start-to-finish strong, with hooks by the bushel. Still, "Garbage Day" is the definite standout - in part because it might be the only love song in recent memory with "garbage" as a major theme.
"I, uh, have no idea where that came from," Benson says, calling from his Nashville home. "I remember sitting at the piano in my house writing it, and it was one of those songs that just came right out. I wasn't conscious of it, I wasn't thinking about it or editing myself or stopping to write anything down. I love when that happens, but sometimes songs like that can be hard to finish. There were several holes in the lyrics where I was just humming. Well, filling in those holes can be like 'Mad Libs.' Months later, I was trying to decode what I'd been trying to say and deciding, 'Ewwwww, this is ... gross.' I didn't understand what ... I was thinking.
"But it's still fun to play live because it's different every time," Benson adds. "I think about it a lot of different ways. It's like a bad dream where you're rooting through garbage looking for somebody's discarded heart, and you're embarrassed when the neighbors see you."
Benson will be at Carrboro's Cat's Cradle on Thursday to show off "My Old, Familiar Friend," which he's been itching to do for a while. The album has actually been in the can for two years, during which time Benson was busy with The Raconteurs - best known as White Stripes guitarist Jack White's "other" band.
"I made my album at the same time The Raconteurs were making [2008's] 'Consolers of the Lonely,' almost literally," Benson says. "I'd work a month on 'Consolers,' then a month on my record; then another month on 'Consolers,' and another month on mine, all consecutively. Then we went on tour immediately. So my record sat for a while. But that was always the plan."
As the "other" songwriter in The Raconteurs, Benson compliments White's blues-rock leanings with peerless pop sense, gleaned from having grown up listening to AM radio during its 1970s glory days. Of course, there's some adjustment in going back and forth between solo act and member of a band.
Benson himself often can't tell whether a given song would be a better fit for the band, or just for him.
"Sometimes it's obvious, but it's not always clear to me," he says. "There are songs I'll write that The Raconteurs just nail, even if they don't seem like Raconteurs songs to me; and others I think will be great that just don't work. So I've given up trying to figure it out. I just have a bunch of songs, I'm writing constantly and I offer stuff up."
Both Raconteurs albums have cracked the top 10, and you'd think that would rub off on Benson's solo career. It's worked to a degree, in that "My Old, Familiar Friend" is his first solo album to crack the Billboard 200 (albeit at a modest No. 110). But he remains more of a cult than popular favorite.
"You know, I really thought The Raconteurs would be more of a boost for my solo career," Benson says. "They're best known for Jack White, and most people don't even realize I'm in that band. It's a conundrum: How do you get the word out? ... It's hard to reach new audiences beyond preaching to the choir, and my fan base is loyal music fans who keep track of careers and read the music papers and magazines.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm happy with that and I make a good living," he concludes. "But my ego wonders why there's no huge hit song. I'm having a baby soon, too, and the father in me wants to make sure the kid is well taken care of. So I need to make some money! I can't just eke by anymore like I have been."