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Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010

Mike Benign’s Second Coming

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For many East Side alt-rock hipsters of the late-1980s and early-’90s, the songs of Mike Benign were part of the soundtrack of their lives. Fronting bands such as Umbrella Man, Arms & Legs & Feet and Blue in the Face, Benign’s smart wordplay and taut melodies encapsulated many of the situations one might encounter along East North Avenue or similar meccas. After disbanding Blue in the Face in 1995, Benign virtually disappeared, save for a couple of discreet solo shows and a one-off Blue in the Face reunion four years ago.

Benign is back with a new band and an album of fresh songs on the way. The Mike Benign Compulsion will play its first full-length show this weekend, Friday, Feb. 26, at Shank Hall.

“I completely walked away from it,” Benign says, explaining his decision to abandon music in the ’90s. “I was frustrated over trying to make a living from bands—and my daughter was born a week before our last show and my son was born two years later. I think leaving music was an overreaction.”

A few years ago, Benign resumed writing songs and quietly began recording them in Colonel Kurtz’s Lair of Sound, the basement studio of veteran Milwaukee musician Joe Vent. “It was going to be a solo album, but it just evolved,” he explains. “People wound up playing on the songs. And Joe was a great collaborator.”

The resulting CD, Rollicking Musical, by the band that emerged out of the sessions, the Mike Benign Compulsion, will be released this spring. Benign’s droll voice has changed little since Blue in the Face, but his songwriting sensibility has become more holistic, with words and music in closer harmony. The ironically bright pop-rock number “All the Married People” has been available as a single. The killer track, however, is the insomniac’s nightmare, “The Soothing Sounds of Seals and Crofts,” with an indelible chorus that fastens to memory like the jaws of a piranha. The arch Britpop of Crowded House and Squeeze are good references. “In some ways, I’ve finally found my voice. It took me 46 years, but I finally figured out who I am as a writer,” Benign says.

The Compulsion is an all-star lineup of local musicians who came to prominence in the era of the first President Bush. Joining Benign (vocals and guitar) are guitarist Joe Vent (of the Yell Leaders), bassist Brian Wooldridge (The Wooldridge Brothers) and drummer Mike Koch (The Joker’s Henchmen). Also heard on the CD are bassist Paul Biemann (Blue in the Face), accordionist Dan Type (Take My Face) and keyboardist Tyler Traband.

“I’m not worried about doing this as a career anymore,” Benign concludes. “We’re doing it now because it’s a blast—it’s just really fun to do. It’s the joy of writing and playing songs. That’s it. Period.”

The Mike Benign Compulsion and The Twilight Hours play an 8 p.m. show at Shank Hall on Friday, Feb. 26.