Lapalco bears within its grooves a well-worn familiarity bordering on intimacy that makes it easy to slip into.
At what point does music lose its magic, that ability to reshape our DNA, imprint itself on our soul and become the literal soundtrack of our lives? I’ve been an avid consumer of popular music for the majority of my life, but there is a surprisingly small window in which any given album obtained any sort of lasting impact. Sure, the classics will always be just that—your Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, et al. (though these, too, have lost some of their magic in the intervening years, removed from their original context). What I’m talking about is new music and its ability to burrow into your brain and take up permanent residence in roughly the same area as that of olfactory-triggered memories.
During these fertile, formative years, specific moments become tied to songs, to albums, to artists. Their very existence helps sustain your own, letting you know it’s going to be okay (or not) and that you’re not the only one feeling this way, despite how things might seem. Now nearly a decade and a half out of college, I’ve found that, in that time, despite a number of great albums coming along, not a single one has managed to have the same impact as those that defined my adolescence. Yet despite a shift in priorities to career and family in adulthood, when I put on an album from those golden years, I’m immediately transported back, able to access hidden thoughts and sensorial memories that can become overpowering if I’m not careful.
Brendan Benson’s Lapalco is one such album. Released in 2002 on Startime International—home to such early 2000s favorites as French Kicks and the Walkmen—Lapalco was Benson’s second album. Having released his debut, One Mississippi, to critical acclaim and cult adoration in 1996, Lapalco’s release was highly-anticipated by a select few. I was not one of those select few. In fact, I can’t even recall exactly how I came upon Lapalco in the first place—in the pre-internet era, how did we find music while living in towns without record stores? Given its release date, Benson’s ties to Detroit in my home state of Michigan, and the ascendant fame of the White Stripes, it’s more likely than not I have Jack White to thank for the introduction. Indeed, the two would eventually work together on a more full-time basis a few years later when Benson joined White in the Raconteurs, while “What” sounds like a more melodically-inclined White Stripes cast-off.
The album made an almost immediate impact on me upon first listen: from the opening of “Tiny Spark,” with its burbling synth and “yeah”s virtually daring you not to sing along. And then comes the first of many brilliant lyrical couplets that somehow manage to perfectly encapsulate the adolescent sense of loneliness and isolation: “I’ve always been this way/ Never known any other way to feel.” How perfect a sentiment is that for someone unsure of their place in society and struggling to achieve some more definitive sense of self? All this in a simple pop song, delivered without affectation and with killer hooks.
Borrowing heavily from the Beatles, Big Star and scores of other power pop heavyweights, Benson coolly and confidently steps up to take his place from note one. Lo-fi and ramshackle in all the best ways, Lapalco bears within its grooves a well-worn familiarity bordering on intimacy that makes it easy to slip into, like a favorite faded flannel shirt. It quickly becomes clear that the intervening six years between albums proved exceptionally fruitful, allowing for a lean collection of power pop gems that clocks in at just under 45 minutes. Of course, having enlisted the help of Jellyfish’s Jason Falkner certainly doesn’t hurt in ensuring a full-fledged power pop masterpiece.
The melancholy “Metarie” serves as the comedown from “Tiny Spark,” starting off small and sad before bursting into a gloriously Beatles-esque hook that totally transforms the song. “I know a guy, lives in Los Angeles/ Sometimes his life there makes me so jealous/ I’d like to move out of this place/ Should change my name, get a new face/ Get a life, put it in my song,” he sings, perfectly encapsulating the Midwestern ennui every introspective loner knows all too well. “Sleep all day, stay up all night, yeah/ Everybody I meet thinks I’m alright.” The truth is always far more complicated than that; it always is at that age.
Listening back now 16 years after its release, I’m immediately drawn back into the confused world I inhabited at that time, music one of my few lifelines in a sea of uncertainty and mental isolation. “Tiny Spark” brings with it a surge of euphoria; “Metarie” taps into a long-forgotten emotional well; “You’re Quiet” lifts the spirit in all the best possible ways, this despite its rather twee lyrical content (“You’re like me/ We’re the same/ I’m Brendan/ What’s your name?”) Closing track “Jet Lag,” which plays like a low-rent Harry Nilsson at his most acerbic and self-effacing, is the final shot to the heart: “My so-called friends/ Where are they now?/ I guess a love that bends/ Isn’t worth much anyhow/ They come and go/ They talk their shit/ And when I really need to know/ All I get is spit in my eye.”
The sum of its collective parts is an album that probably wouldn’t have the same impact were I to first encounter it now. But coming as it did, at a time when music truly meant something to me on a deeply personal level, it’s become an integral part of my chemical makeup, the accompanying emotions capable of spanning time, distance, friendships and lives lived and lost. “But I don’t let it bother me,” he sings on “Jet Lag,” “I cut out any part of me that’s been bruised and refused and misused or confused.” Words of wisdom for the emotionally and socially dispossessed.