Even at the first glimpse of The Benders’ new CD “New Britain,” one can see the humility that permeates the band’s music. From its no-frills name to the inauspicious album title, (a reference to the New Britain studio in which the band mastered the album) to the worn oriental carpet that decorates the album’s cover, it becomes clear that The Benders are not a band that is out to conquer the rock and roll landscape.
The band, led by Brian McKay’s energized guitar playing and competent vocals, and complemented by Chris Serapiglia (underused on bass), and J.P. Cyr’s rich drumming style, regularly play their blend of indie pop and old-fashioned rock in the greater New Haven area. One gets the sense from the Benders’ debut album that the live environment is one that really suits them. “New Britain” has its share of enjoyable moments, but the band should probably be experienced with a beer in hand, rather than on headphones.
McKay sounds obsessed about the legacy of rock music, his songwriting at times getting bogged down with overly-serious speculation, which the band simply is not able to support musically. On “(Dis)band,” the album’s fourth track, McKay sadly observes that “all my favorite bands have disbanded/ and all my favorite bands have abandoned me.” Ruminating about rock bands is something that indie bands have indulged in from Sonic Youth to Pavement, but this late in the indie rock game, such sentiments just sound tired.
The album’s fifth track “Another Year” stands out as one of a handful of gems on “New Britain.” Employing a loose and potent rhythmic section reminiscent of an odd combination of Modest Mouse and Everclear, McKay jovially boasts “I ain’t drunk, but I can’t stand up,” amid washes of vibrato surf guitar. This track has a heft to it that some others don’t, and it really stands out as an impressive highlight.
As the album moves on, the band gets more and more comfortable with its music. The pop songs that mark the record’s first half are sacrificed in favor of more atmospheric compositions. On “Unstable,” McKay’s guitar becomes a wash of ambient noise and echoing scratches, and Cyr nearly bludgeons the drums, creating real menace for the first time. “So long,” McKay disaffectedly intones over a musical backdrop that sounds closer to Slowdive than Guided by Voices, whose indiepop acts perhaps ill-advisedly as the guiding light through the majority of “New Britain.”
On “After Awhile,” the band manages to break free of the rigid pop structures that have restrained their inventiveness and creativity. Sacrificing the occasionally featureless guitar riffs that mark the rest of the record, the band instead settles into a driving bass groove, marked by ominous bursts of static from McKay. The simple chord progression lets the band dig into the rhythm more than they do anywhere else on the record, creating immensely satisfying music that can stand up with the best of the genre.
“New Britain” is throughout a solid solo debut, made especially exciting by the fact that one can regularly see the Benders play within walking distance of campus. The band’s greatest weakness is their modesty. Frequently setting their sights on song forms and subject matters below their own abilities, the Benders have created a record with a refreshing unpretentiousness, but also with frustrating hints at real creative accomplishment.