Living in the South suits Brendan Benson well. The slower way of life, the corn fields, the tranquility found in sitting on the porch watching the world go by, and the wide open spaces – it all fits this Detroit native and critically adored singer-songwriter just fine.

What he really loves, however, is the innate friendliness of the folks in Nashville, his newly adopted hometown. The kind of folks who take it easy like Sunday morning every day of the week. Neighbors who bring each other freshly baked goods or newly picked vegetables from backyard orchards, and wave at each other on the street, or in passing while running errands.

“I was telling a story the other day, that when I first moved to Nashville, you know, everyone’s so nice. They uphold the traditions and the manners, being polite, and holding the door for you. But what I noticed first was that people were smiling at me, including women. They would smile at me, and I’d think, ‘Oh my God!’” Benson relates to me during a mid-summer phone call.

“I wasn’t even used to it, so I thought, ‘Oh my God, is she hitting on me?! [laughs] Is she interested, or what? What’s going on here?!’ Then I quickly realized, luckily before I made any [laughs] dumb moves, that it’s just…nice. It’s just what people do here. And coming from Detroit, the North, say, if you walk through a door, [and] you’re behind someone, no one checks behind them to see if anyone’s coming. But I do, so I think it’s weird that I come from the North and still have these manners instilled in me.”

It’s this type of genial, everyman quality that endears Benson to the multitudes of fans and critics who have embraced his solo records (1996’s One Mississippi, 2002’s Lapalco and 2005’s The Alternative to Love) and followed him into larger, bluesier, and more successful territory with The Raconteurs and longtime friends Jack Lawrence, Jack White and Patrick Keeler.

Benson, ever the work horse and melodic journeyman, is now back with a deeply rich and satisfying fourth album, My Old, Familiar Friend. Recorded in London and Nashville with producer Gil Norton (famous for his work on the Pixies’ Doolittle and the Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape), and mixer Dave Sardy, My Old, Familiar Friend is yet another meticulous, brilliantly crafted outing of timeless 70’s-esque power-pop tunes that explore universal themes of love, friendship, life and growth from Benson’s distinctively wise and optimistic perspective. Four songs in particular on Friend, “Gonowhere,” “Feel Like Taking You Home,” “You Make a Fool Out of Me” and “Poised and Ready” serve as the anchor and heart of the album and are some of the best and most fully realized work Benson has put to wax.

brendanbensoncover1Although Benson has historically opted to self-produce his solo albums, (along with playing most of the instruments) the decision to hand the controls and control over to Norton for Friend was borne out of necessity, and desire to enjoy the recording process. Norton’s slower hand even allowed the ultra-busy Benson to nap “quite a bit” in the studio. The chore of sequencing the record went to his publisher, because, as Benson puts it, “I suck at it. You get emotionally involved, or you get attached to certain songs because they turned out, or for other reasons. Sequencing is kind of an art, and there’s things to consider when you do it, but, I think I consider the wrong things. Like, this song’s maybe newer, fresher, so I want it first.”

“I was just tired of making all the decisions and carrying the burden all the time, carrying the weight…the pressure of it all. It was fun for a long time, and it still is fun, but just for this record I was feeling like… Being in the Raconteurs, [it] also reminded me of how enjoyable it can be when you don’t have to worry about every stage of it: record it, produce it, and engineer it. That’s really not how it’s meant to be anyhow.”

“Gonowhere,” arguably a sister song or cousin to the Raconteurs’ “Together,” (a mere coincidence, although the affable singer doesn’t disagree) finds Benson sweetly encouraging an acquaintance, “You could have it nice or complicated…You could improvise and be creative…You’ve got a lot to give, and you’ve got a life to live… Don’t say anything that isn’t kind, anything that isn’t nice. Don’t waste your time on people going nowhere.”

When pressed on his tendency to offer advice and wry observations on folks’ lives around him and otherwise in lyric, as most of Friend is framed by, Benson thinks for a beat and agrees. “I think it’s a recurring theme that I’m not really aware of. But yeah, [it’s] about living in the present, living in the moment, and not waiting or wishing or hoping for something else, or remembering a better time or being nostalgic, or living in the past.”

As for who the Friend, friends, or lover in question is, Benson isn’t talking, (a similar posture adopted when he was asked what his “alternative to love” might be in 2005) but offers, “I want to keep it ambiguous. I like for people to have their own feeling about it. I definitely have a feeling about it, [and] it changes for me everyday, that sentiment. There’s something about this title that’s beautiful to me and I don’t know why and I like to keep it that way. It’s not a riddle.”

“My Old, Familiar Friend” is out August 18, 2009 on ATO Records.

–Carrie Alison, Photo by Autumn de Wilde

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