Jay Bennett's fourth solo effort, The Magnificent Defeat, is as dizzying and dazzling as anything he and his former bandmates put together, and it's nowhere near as mopey. For one thing, Bennett's records in general -- and this one in particular -- don't sound like his record collection. They sound like he wrote songs, made noise -- and music -- and had a blast doing it. With a bit of help from longtime collaborator Edward Burch, and co-producer and multi-instrumentalist David Vandervelde, The Magnificent Defeat is one strange, quirky, and labyrinthine journey filled with the quark weirdness of growing up ("5th Grade"), broken love songs (the rollicking country-rock of "Wide Open"), and the gorgeously and perversely orchestrated tale of loss and studied rebuttal ("The Palace at 4 A.M."). This latter track has an obvious inspiration: the Elvis Costello of King of America. It's not just the tune or its arrangements, but Bennett even reaches for those same notes with his own little voice. It's a tribute paid blatantly. It adds immeasurably to the drama, warmth, and humor in this set.
"Replace You " is a rocker with plinking high keys from an upright piano, a pumped up organ, and a guitar riff that the glam kings would have fought the biker bands for. When "Out All Night," comes slinking out of the speakers at a volume of ten with throbbing guitar squall, it becomes obvious that Bennett is lyrically obsessed with brokenness in his relationships, but he celebrates it with the grittiness and accessibility of the best rock & roll, rather than just swimming in the emotion. As a result, he comes to accept it all with the words: "Yeah, it was the best that I could do..." Never have heartbreak and loneliness sounded like such a desirable party to attend. In "Overexcusers," a grand, detached, social and political cynicism is sparkled through with pop hooks, bright spangly production, and quaking drums. "Survey the Damage" is a ballad; it's shot through with just enough bitterness to give the listener a degree of empathy rather than pity. The layered vocals, keyboards and stumbling drums make this a near baroque-pop song, though, full of texture, space, and a killer screaming guitar solo worthy of Neil Young during his Zuma period. The bottom line is, that with juxtapositions like this, the listener never has time to get bored or even be content with what's here. The feeling after five or six listens is one of excitement and delight. Not to beat a dead horse, but it becomes poignantly apparent what Bennett brought to his former band. His taste, as reflected in his production, his various instrumental roles, and his sheer sonic and dynamic vocabulary are just what those yobs are missing. The Magnificent Defeat (one wonders if the title comes from a collection of essays by the provocative writer Frederick Beuchner), is a bit of a wonder, really. It's an album you'll be able to play in five or ten years simply because there is so much in it. It's rowdy, sometimes raucous, tender, good-spirited and full of surprises. It's a rootsy yet manic pop thrill.