Brendan Benson – Lapalco

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I love when rock ‘n’ roll nerds succeed. Success being a relative term here, as Lapalco probably did not sell very well, though it did get a lot of good press and Jack White sure seems to have liked it. Benson had a sad but not atypical story of his time on Virgin Records, who abandoned him when his acclaimed 1996 debut did not move enough units (for the record, I found One Mississippi to be just okay). He then regrouped – six years later – and released Lapalco on well-regarded indie Startime International; it was a critical hit and some of the songs made it onto tv show and movie soundtracks. The album gave him new life. He has continued to release solo albums and is also in the Raconteurs with White. Frankly, almost none of that interests me. I am mostly just into Lapalco because it is the purest distillation of the power-pop nerd trope: an anonymous guy (I would say kid, but Benson was in his 30s at this point) making music, essentially all by himself, complete with goofy rhymes, lacking all self-consciousness, and brimming with ideas and enthusiasm.

What I Think of This Album

Endearing does not come close to describing this album. Benson seems to be having the time of his life, and his playfulness and goodwill command so much of your attention that it is all too easy to overlook how much work this must have been. There are barely any liner notes, but the suggestion is that Benson wrote most of this (fellow genre fan Jason Falkner gets a co-writing credit on five songs) and apparently played all the instruments. In doing so, he crafts a singular power-pop album that is heavier on the pop than the power – there are guitars, of course, but this is not Matthew Sweet backed by Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. No, this is the Raspberries and Nick Lowe updated for the 2000s. At the same time, there is enough melancholy, questioning, and self-doubt to merit an additional reference to Big Star at this point. But most of all, it is joyful, exuberant, and bursting with energy.

“Tiny Spark” tells you all you need to know about this album; it is a charmer, with a snaky synth intro, a winning melody, clever construction (there is no chorus), and some great backing harmonies when Benson sings the title lyrics in what is the catchiest bridge ever. You could really skip the next three songs:  “Metarie” is sort of annoying; “Folk Singer” is predictably not folky, but does have some nice flanged guitar; and “Life in the D” is a contemplative, with quasi-psychedelic keyboard sounds swirling around.

“Good to Me” merrily extols the virtue of satisfaction with a knowing maturity and harmonies galore, and this is the point at which the album really impresses and never lets off. “You’re Quiet” is goofy fun with a Cars-like keyboard part and ridiculous lyrics that might make you groan but will mostly make you fall more in love with Benson (“I need a pickup and I don’t mean truck”). “What” is one of the rockier songs on here (there is a solo!), and also holds the record for the greatest number of times the word “girl” is employed in a tune; the walking bass line holds together this bitter yet tuneful diatribe. “Eventually” is earnest and yearning, also featuring some meaty guitar work in places and more artsy parts elsewhere; this songs sounds like it’s going to end quickly and then just keeps on going (not a bad thing). “I’m Easy” again unleashes some goofy lyrics (“Don’t make call my crew up / We’ll beat you up” and “I’m deliberately deliberating”) against an energetic backing fueled by powerful drumming; the harmonies here again are excellent. “Pleasure Seeker” starts out like late-period Flaming Lips but quickly course-corrects and Benson deliver some of his best singing on the album in this melancholy, propulsive song. “Just Like Me” and “Jetlag” have a ‘70s singer-songwriter feel to them, more Randy Newman than James Taylor, thankfully; each is wonderful and full of neat details.

In case you wondered, Lapalco stand for Louisiana Power and Light Company.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Tiny Spark” feels like the clear winner, but I might change my mind if I think about it more.

Release Date

February, 2002

The Cover Art

There’s no way anyone really thought this was a good idea. Nothing about this works. The (lack of) spacing between Benson’s name and the album title is visually confusing, the photograph is out of focus, and the image is pointless and downright unappealing.

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