Brendan Benson with the Stands at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Monday (April 11). $10. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Possessing a knack for writing radio-friendly pop tunes that radio stations don't play, Brendan Benson seemed destined to join Dwight Twilley, Robyn Hitchcock and Tommy Keene in the cult of not-quite-popular pop artists who couldn't buy a chart hit no matter how catchy the hooks they drop in their hummable songs.
That could change with Benson's snazzy new Alternative To Love (V2) disc, which has been out for a week, and the buzz - well, light chatter - leading up to its release hasn't yet dissipated.
There's a strange feeling of optimism surrounding Benson this time that definitely wasn't present for 2002's Lapalco or 1996's One Mississippi. Just the way his New York label rep barks "You've got 10 minutes" to start our phone interview indicates that this clearly isn't business as usual for Benson.
Evidently, he had a few spare New York minutes for a brief chat during a limo ride over to Calvin Klein's for a suit fitting before taping a crucial Conan O'Brien spot.
"There does seem to be more attention on this record, and it's doing well in its first week of release," says Benson with guarded enthusiasm. "But I don't think about that stuff too much. I'm just going to play some shows, and if something happens with the record I'd be stoked, but if it doesn't I won't be too disappointed."
So what's changed? Well, the songs on Alternative To Love are written to the same high standard of craftsmanship and elegant economy that has always earned Benson high critical praise. Of course, having a breathless Mojo review of Lapalco stating that "some records are so perfect they make you worry" along with a dollar might get you a cup of coffee.
The real difference here is that instead of working with learn-as-you-go amateurs, he recorded the album himself and sent it off to a professional, namely Tchad Blake, to mix it. The improvements in sound are noticeable.
"I've liked his work with the Latin Playboys and Los Lobos - those records sound really great. I'm sorry, hang on for a minute....
"Where were we? Oh yeah, well, after the recording was finished, I sent all the tracks to Tchad in England. He'd put the rough mixes up on his site, I'd check them out on the Internet and we'd talk on the phone. It was an odd way of working, because we never actually met, but he did a great job."
While Benson was waiting for the mixes to be completed, he found time to finish off a collaborative project with his White Stripes pal Jack White and begin production on a new Greenhornes album, neither of which has a projected release date.
"I don't think anyone who hears what Jack and I have done will consider it a huge departure for either of us. He does his thing and I do mine - he'll sing a verse and I might do a chorus - and then we literally shove 'em together.
"I still don't know what we're gonna call it, maybe the Raconteurs, but we haven't decided on that or the release date. We've put it aside for a while because he's doing his record and I'm busy with mine, so it'll probably be out early next year.
"The Greenhornes record is sounding great - it's not strictly garage - but unfortunately we couldn't complete it because I had to leave for this tour. I gave them the tapes, and they'll have to finish it themselves." email@example.com