Brendan Benson and the Wellfed Boys – Metarie EP

Metarie is a little gem of a five-track EP from Detroit-based artist Brendan Benson and his touring band, The Wellfed Boys. The title track is offered in two versions (track one is the “wellfed version”; track two is the “UK version”). The second has a slightly trippier feel to it, but both explore the moody depths of the song. “Metarie” starts off innocently enough with a formulaic “I met a girl …” but then veers off into avenues of alternating self-defense and self-deprecation, set off by the girl’s kiss-off: “You need a bath and your clothes are wrong.” It’s a quick, engaging trip through typical complaints and wishes: he wants to get out of where he is; he’s jealous of a friend in LA. He wants to “get a life,” though, it seems, only to “put it in my song.”
Benson reads through all his songs with a bright, if not too energetic, delivery. The easiest comparison to make is with Elliot Smith, though there’s a lot of Badly Drawn Boy in there too. The most Smith-like song is the third track, “Alternative to Love.” It’s a quiet, charming meditation on things gone wrong, wondering whether they’ll work out the next time. “Maybe I’m just damaged goods,” he sings, staying deadpan and earnest-sounding (though not in an overwrought way) wondering if there is some kind of alternative.
Actually, the fourth track, “You’re Quiet,” breaks off from the meandering acoustic guitar melodies of most of the EP and makes its attack directly, complete with fuzzy guitars, and it sounds more like The Rentals than anything else. Except for its 70s classic-rock-sounding bridge, it’s firmly in quirky pop territory, trying to pick up a girl (“You’re like me, we’re the same / I’m Brendan, what’s your name?”). It definitely sounds like some Beach Boys influence went into this song, too, with a good result.
The closer is a terrific surprise: a cover of Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It.” While the guitars can’t be described as “heavy” anywhere on this album, they come closest on this track, fuzzed into mid-70s Eric Clapton territory, over muted, shuffling snare drum and a deep, rubbery bass line. There’s also a fantastic harmonica solo (it’s not credited anywhere, but I assume it’s Benson playing).
While the title track, which clearly seems to have had the most work put into it production-wise, is excellent, it’s the variety (not to mention fun) offered by these last two tracks (“You’re Quiet” and “Let Me Roll It”) that most of all make me wish this was a full-length album. Benson is clearly a strong enough songwriter to fill one out in this vein. He’s released two already; 1996’s One Mississippi is considered by many a forgotten (and now out of print) masterpiece. It had studio backing and a professional production (from Ethan Johns, who has produced Rufus Wainwright and Ryan Adams), and won critical praise but only mediocre sales, even by indie standards. Last year’s Lapalco features different versions of some of the same songs on the new EP (which probably explains why Metarie was only released as an EP supporting the two versions of its title track).
Benson is reportedly good friends with The White Stripes’ Jack White, so hopefully White might be willing and able to swing some renewed big-label interest Benson’s way. It would certainly be well-deserved, and probably well-received by fans wanting something smarter than most of the candy-sweet pop rock bands on the radio, not to mention something that reminds you of what didn’t suck about music in the 70s.