One Mississippi [Reissue]
Are there more alt-rock records being reissued now than there were a few years ago, or does it just seem that way? First Merge Records reintroduced us to Spoon’s excellent Series of Sneaks dating from the band’s Elektra fallout, F.M. Cornog’s debut as East River Pipe, Shining Hours in a Can, and The Clean’s out-of-print early material on the band’s comprehensive Anthology. Then Badman Recording Co. scooped up the first two Swell CDs, and put them out with “must-have” B-sides and bonus tracks. Now the New York-based StarTime label comes to the rescue of yet another victim of major label avarice and critical neglect, Brendan Benson.
Benson’s debut One Mississippi was released in 1996 on Virgin. Barely into his twenties, the label had courted him, promised him wealth and fame and gave him $150,000 to record with Jellyfish’s Jason Falkner. But there wasn’t enough payola devoted to the album, so radio stations ignored it. Benson’s purported shyness didn’t endow him with a very dynamic stage persona. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before the label dropped him. Benson drifted back to Detroit, and One Mississippi drifted into limbo. The few critics who had heard the album viewed the situation with mixed feelings: Benson’s career was in awful shape, but he had recorded a minor masterpiece before vanishing.
So what it is about One Mississippi that merits a) such high praise and b) another attempt to win the attention of the public after eight years? The answer to the first lies in the second. The music of One Mississippi is timeless. Clever lyrics, distinct and instantly hummable melodies, emotional sincerity, humor, solid playing without flamboyance… if these ever go out of fashion, it will be a sad day in music history.
With all its vocal harmonies, jaunty piano and fruity chord changes, “Tea,” the 60-second album opener, bears the stamp of Falkner in that it resembles the music of Jellyfish. The remainder is straightforward guy-and-his-guitar pop/rock. No, it isn’t a new format, but old hat done well is a hundred times better than pure innovation poorly executed. “I’m Blessed” and “Maginary Girl” are edgy, loaded with guitar hooks. “Insects Rule” is completely absurd, but musically it’s as insinuative as a botfly.
For every self-pitying, lovelorn song such as “Me Just Purely” or the south-of-the-border-ish “Emma J,” Benson is quick to preserve the balance with a dose of irony or self-deprecation. On “Got No Secrets” he saddles a ska guitar line and mock-confesses in talk show fashion his problems with drugs, child abuse, statutory rape, attempted suicide and so on. During the chorus he wonders if it might have been better to keep his mouth shut. Twice on the disc — “Sittin’ Pretty” appears in its album format as well as its more austere The Wellfed Boy EP version — Benson sings, “My baby’s tied to a chair / Don’t she look pretty just sittin’ there,” and follows it with a few lines of tongue-in-cheek “na-na-na.” Jeff Gordinier mentions in the liner notes that one hypersensitive radio listener failed to appreciate the irony of this song and voiced her indignation to an apologetic Benson. She may have been one of the few individuals able to resist the singer/songwriter’s music coupled with his charm — though I wouldn’t exactly say that her mindset is something for which to strive.
As if including The Wellfed Boy EP wasn’t enough, the label has also seized the reissue opportunity to tack on Japanese version tracks of “The Swamp” and “Jet Stream,” as well as the countrified hidden track “S.R.P.” from the original album as the final (twenty-second!) track here. Owners of the Virgin release have every reason to buy this bulked-up version of One Mississippi. There are about thirty minutes of rarities and alternate takes. For anyone who missed out the first time the album hit record stores, StarTime has saved you the trouble of searching through used CD bins and online auctions in the hopes that someone was foolish enough to part with it.