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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mike Benign Ponders Middle Age with 'Here's How it Works'

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For rock songwriters, middle age is the topic less taken. Great novelists have long made the subject their own, but rock still perceives itself as a young person’s game—even if many of the bestselling touring acts haven’t seen the sunny side of 40 in years.

Mike Benign has chosen to address his own ascent past the half-century mark on the Mike Benign Compulsion’s third album, Here’s How it Works. “For this album, it’s very much about ‘write what you know,’” he explains. “I never wrote in a style that was inauthentic to me.”

Milwaukee music fans of a certain age fondly remember Benign as the frontman for bands such as Umbrella Man, Arms & Legs & Feet and Blue in the Face. Benign was the articulate voice for smart, well-educated East Side alternative rock as the ’80s slid into the ’90s. His lyrics were often witty snapshots of being young and out all night in the clubs and bars of East North Avenue and other college student-magnet zones. Hopes were high for Blue in the Face reaching that fabled “next level,” but music (and the music industry) was changing fast. With out-of-town success beyond his grasp, Benign walked away from writing and performing for nearly 15 years.

Here’s How it Works is a magnificent tribute to the smart pop of Benign’s era—The Beatles as distilled through Squeeze and Crowded House with a twist of Elvis Costello for tartness. Loss and resignation suffuse the lyrics: imagine looking into the once inexhaustible storehouse of time and finding it more than half empty. The Compulsion is comprised of veteran Milwaukee musicians, including Joe Vent (guitar), Brian Wooldridge (bass) and Michael Koch (drums). Among the guests heard on Here’s How it Works are Tyler Traband (keyboards), Damian Strigens and Betty Blexrud-Stringens (vocals) and John Carr (tambourine).

“As always, I’m going for a blend of insight and humor,” Benign says. “It’s not all dark and when it is, dark can be funny. What does life look like when you get to this age? You’re on the trajectory you’re on and you can’t do much about it, but it makes for interesting songs.”

Here’s How it Works is available as a digital download and a vinyl LP. It’s the first 12-inch release for Benign, who graduated from cassettes to CDs at a time when old-style analog was relegated to the garage sale of pop culture. “An artifact you can hold in your hand with all that room for cover imagery—you can’t beat vinyl,” Benign says.

The Mike Benign Compulsion and Testa Rosa play Shank Hall on Saturday, March 8, at 8 p.m. Here’s How it Works is streaming at themikebenigncompulsion.bandcamp.com/album/heres-how-it-works.