- The Washington Times - Friday, December 4, 2009

Four years ago, Brendan Benson put his solo career on hold. The Detroit native had spent a decade creating smart, retro-minded pop songs, taking cues from Alex Chilton and Todd Rundgren in the process. He began exploring different sounds in 2005, however, when a songwriting session with Jack White blossomed into a full-fledged band.

Named the Raconteurs, the group took much of its strength from its two co-founders, whose shared Detroit heritage brought a bluesy, garage-rock flavor to the songs. The so-called supergroup made a powerful racket, and the Raconteurs toured the world while releasing two albums.

“It was a different style of touring,” Mr. Benson says of the experience. “With the Raconteurs, there was more comfort on the road — better hotels, nicer buses. That might sound materialistic, but that’s all you’ve got when you’re out there. You’ve got your hour and a half of playing, and then you’re traveling for the other 22 and a half hours.”

Although he continued to write his own material, Mr. Benson stayed away from solo performances while touring. “I was really focused on the Racs,” he explains. “I think it would have been difficult to make that switch.”

While recording the second Raconteurs album last year, though, he began splitting his time between band duties and solo plans. Mr. Benson had written more than 40 songs on the road, and he hired producer Gil Norton to help sort through them all.

When the Raconteurs took a break from recording, he booked his own studio time and began creating “My Old, Familiar Friend,” his fourth solo album. Songs were recorded in spurts, whenever the Raconteurs’ schedule would allow.

“It was weird changing head space like that,” he says of the process.

“My Old, Familiar Friend” is a compilation of sorts, an album whose songs are often more than five years old. It’s also one of the most effortless albums Mr. Benson has made, despite the hectic circumstances.

“I used to take forever to get the sound just right,” he says, “but that doesn’t happen anymore. It shouldn’t sound like this tortured record, and you shouldn’t really be aware of the work that goes into it. It should be an easy thing.”

Brendan Benson returns to the District on Wednesdayfor a show at the 9:30 Club. Cory Chisel opens. Tickets for the 8 p.m. performance are $15.

Standing up to cancer

Andrew McMahon has grown up fast.

The 27-year-old songwriter signed his first record deal as a high school student and hit the road shortly thereafter, touring the country as the leader of Something Corporate. When that band dissolved in 2004, he launched a new project, Jack’s Mannequin, and signed another major-label contract.

That momentum came to an abrupt halt in 2005, when Mr. McMahon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Having toured relentlessly for seven years, he suddenly found himself confined to a hospital bed, where spinal taps and doses of chemotherapy left him exhausted. With his weakened immune system putting him at risk, he also contracted pneumonia.

“Dear Jack,” a documentary film released in November, details the singer’s long recovery. Much of the material was shot by Mr. McMahon himself, who kept a DV camera by his bedside. Like his music — which pairs confessional lyrics with his skilled piano playing — “Dear Jack” is often intensely personal.

“My wife and I worried about releasing something so private,” the singer says. “We ultimately remembered how many questions we had when I was first getting sick, and we wished we could’ve gotten some answers at the time.

“There were a lot of scary turns that I came to find out were pretty common. From that perspective, we thought the movie was worth getting out there, regardless of what we’d be sacrificing.”

“Dear Jack” is arresting, but it rarely overshadows the music made before or after Mr. McMahon’s hospitalization. With its depictions of Californian beach culture and the difficult transition into adulthood, Jack’s Mannequin offers a grown-up interpretation of the sound that Something Corporate once made.

“By 2004, my relationship with the other Something Corporate band mates was starting to fracture,” he explains.

“Both of our records had sold between 300,000 and 400,000 copies at that point, and there was a sense that the next record would be the one that pushed us through. But you become a slave to that idea, and you don’t end up accomplishing anything. There was certainly a risk starting a new band — it was like going to school for the first time — but there wasn’t any other option. The healthiest thing to do was to keep stimulating myself musically.”

Speaking of health, Mr. McMahon has resumed the fast pace that made him a star at the age of 20. Jack’s Mannequin continues to tour in support of the band’s second album, “The Glass Passenger,” which charted at No. 8 during its first week of release. Meanwhile, the cancer-free singer has found time to launch his own label and nonprofit organization, the latter of which raises funds for medical research.

“Finishing ‘Dear Jack’ was a long process,” he says as the conversation winds down.

“At any given time, there was only so much energy I could put into the film since it was so hard to watch. After finishing up the album, touring the record and starting to set my sights on a new direction, though, it’s a little easier to view. I can see it for what it was.”

Jack’s Mannequin visits the Patriot Center on Wednesday as part of DC101’s Festivus. Weezer and Motion City Soundtrack also will perform. Tickets for the 7 p.m. show are $49.50.

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