Having released three terrific power-pop albums that enjoyed critical and hipster acclaim but not as much commercial success, Brendan Benson has earned a significantly higher profile of late as the second-billed star behind Jack White in the Raconteurs. The classic guitar-rock aesthetic of the supergroup doesn’t necessarily give Benson an opportunity to show off his exceptional ear for vintage, Beatles-inspired pop, so he seems to have taken his fourth album, My Old, Familiar Friend, as an opportunity to expand the scope of his trademark sound. He brings a decidedly Motown influence to “Garbage Day,” and there’s an aggressive stomp to the percussion on “Don’t Wanna Talk,” even when it breaks into a sing-along “la la la” chorus, while “Gonowhere” and “Feel Like Taking You Home” recall the ‘70s AM radio pop of Todd Rundgren and Wings without ever descending into simple mimicry.
Benson’s songwriting is on point for much of the record: Opener “A Whole Lot Better” strikes a tricky balance between post-breakup rage and romantic infatuation as he sings, “I fell in love with you/And out of love with you/All in the same day.” “Lesson Learned” and “Poised and Ready” find Benson at his wittiest and his most intense. Beneath the cheerful sounds and powerful hooks, Friend seethes and writhes. That underlying intensity works against the record, though, because the arrangements of the songs often sound overworked. Having a bigger production budget isn’t the problem, but there’s a fussiness to the songs that’s stifling. “Eyes on the Horizon” and the new wave-infused “Feel Like Taking You Home” never quite get off the ground. But even at its stuffiest, Friend is a power-pop record that never skimps on the power.