Each decade has a handful of power pop icons to call its own, each working from the template that the Beatles and the Who constructed in the '60s, adhering to that melodic, guitar-driven sound but subtly updating it to fit the musical and emotional aesthetic of the time. In the '90s, the tradition was kept alive by Teenage Fanclub and Matthew Sweet, who married Big Star and Badfinger to '80s college rock -- there was also Jellyfish, who acted as if the '80s never existed -- and in the 2000s, it's been the New Pornographers, an indie-centric act who fills the Fanclub's spot, and Detroit-based singer/songwriter Brendan Benson, who is this decade's Matthew Sweet. Not that the Sweet-Benson analogy is 100 percent accurate. For one thing, Benson doesn't favor the messy guitars and confessionals that marked Sweet's '90s masterworks Girlfriend, Altered Beast, and 100% Fun, preferring tightly constructed songs and precisely detailed arrangements that emphasize his sweet melodies. Also, where Sweet's music tied neatly into the zeitgeist of the Alternative Nation of the early '90s, Benson's music is deliberately classicist and proudly out of time, belonging neither to the sounds nor the fashion of the 2000s. That is, unless the defining characteristic of this decade truly is smart, sharp revivalism, from the Strokes through LCD Soundsystem, but even if that's the case, Benson is the heir to a tradition that has never had much commercial (or critical) potency since Badfinger and the Raspberries developed it in the early '70s -- too-shy, sensitive pop tunesmiths who are also skilled record-makers but whose sense of pop remains rooted in the golden era of the '60s, so it chiefly appeals to other pop geeks raised on similar sensibilities. Benson, like the New Pornographers and their leader, A.C. Newman, primarily plays to this small, insular cult that cherishes sugary melodies and knowing, referential productions above all else, but he, like the Pornographers, breaks out of this small world thanks to a combination of skill, fortunate timing, and good luck. As he was working on his third album, Alternative to Love, his friendship with White Stripes mastermind Jack White intensified, leading to a collaboration (unreleased as of this writing), which raised Benson's profile considerably around the time of the album's spring release in 2005. That increased profile meant that Alternative to Love received more attention than either his largely ignored 1996 debut, One Mississippi, or his 2002 cult classic Lapalco, suggesting that the album was a creative breakthrough when it really just delivered more of the same smart, hooky classicist pop that distinguished his first album. Not that this was something entirely unexpected -- power poppers pretty much remake the same album each time -- and somebody like Benson who prides himself as a craftsman keeps rewriting until he perfects his ideas, which is what he gets close to doing on Alternative to Love. While there is nothing unexpected here -- the closest it comes is with the modernist touches in the mixes by Tchad Blake, which are very much in the style of Jon Brion but not nearly as arty -- its very familiarity is its strength, both to those already enamored of Benson's music or to those guitar pop fans hearing him for the first time. The first listen of Alternative to Love is like experiencing an old favorite with fresh ears -- the feel is familiar, but the details are all new, from the hooks and harmonies to the subtle details in the production, like the theramin that flows throughout the opener, "Spit It Out." Alternative to Love isn't a bracing record, but rather a friendly, comfortable one, an album that's immediately likeable and gets better with each spin, as all great power pop albums do. And make no mistake, this is close to a great power pop record, due to Benson's strong writing and impeccable sense of craft, which are the primarily appeals for power pop fanatics in the first place. Perhaps it doesn't have the kinetic energy or sense of adventure that mark the genre's true classics from No Dice till Girlfriend, but Alternative to Love also exists in an era that's enamored with the past and doesn't take many risks, and on those terms, it's the perfect power pop album for its decade.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine