AT 34, Brendan Benson is a one-man compendium of the emotional spectrum offered by the rock experience. In a decade-long career, he's ridden the euphoria of a major record deal and felt the thud of being abruptly dropped. His music swung from punk to richly sophisticated, hook-filled pop-rock, and his attitude about the whole thing has ranged from slacker casual to flat-out ambitious.
Even his biggest recent boost taps a vein of ambivalence: his affiliation with the White Stripes' Jack White, who popped up on stage with Benson at the Troubadour in May, then invited Benson to play a song with the Stripes at the Greek Theatre in August.
The two Detroit residents are also the principals of a side band called the Raconteurs, which will release an album next year, possibly with a tour to follow.
"For a long time it was getting just annoying," says Benson, who headlines Spaceland on Saturday and Sunday. "Never doing an interview without someone asking about Jack, or there wasn't any article that didn't mention his name. So I was starting to wonder, 'Is this going to hurt me in the end? If he goes down do I go down with him or what?'
"But I think it's been more helpful than anything. I can't think of anyone better to be attached to. He's a big success and I reach a lot more people through him, but I also admire him. He's one of the best songwriters out there for sure, so I don't mind being associated with him."
Musically, it's not an immediately obvious pairing. White might have broadened the Stripes' stylistic range, but he's still primarily a power player, while Benson has established himself as a finesse artist.
His third album, "The Alternative to Love," is textbook power-pop, even if Benson himself rejects that term, associating it with bands such as Weezer. A harvest of hooks and harmonies, catchy melodies and eccentrically unfolding arrangements, it pulls together strands of "Rubber Soul" and Elliott Smith, the Replacements and Phil Spector.
But the confections Benson crafted in his gear-stuffed Detroit home always value the heart over surface allure. In fact, one of the strongest moments is one of the sparest, "What I'm Looking For," where acoustic strum and drum thump buoy a winsome reflection: "Well I don't know what I'm lookin' for, but I know that I just wanna look some more ...."
"Alternative" came out in March on V2 Records, home of the Stripes and the second big label that Benson has signed up with. The first one, Virgin, came at the beginning, almost by accident.
BENSON had moved to California from his hometown, Royal Oak, Mich., at age 18, and for the next few years moved between L.A. and the Bay Area. He was writing songs with no particular aim when he hooked up with power-pop hero Jason Falkner, who helped him record some demos.
That music found its way to some record label offices, and before he knew it, Benson had signed with Virgin Records and released his first album, "One Mississippi," in 1996. And nearly as quickly, the label dumped him.
"It was my first time out and I had high hopes, and when it didn't happen it was really disappointing," Benson says. "Initially, I thought, 'All right, that's it,' but it became clear to me there was nothing else for me. There was nothing else I could do or wanted to do. It wasn't that bad. I soon got over it. I mean, I didn't make a record for another five years or something, but.... "
But he sure had a lot of songs when the time came. "Lapalco" came out in 2002 on the tiny independent Star Time label, and Benson found the experience revitalizing.
"It just helped to restore my faith and my confidence; it made me strong again. I was stoked again, I was really excited to be playing, I wasn't worried about having a hit song or having to please anyone....
"When V2 came into the picture I felt good and I also had the benefit of hindsight, and I sort of knew what to expect. I wasn't naive anymore. It's still been a rocky road, it always is.... Just the typical ups and downs."
He'll take the ups and downs if it means he can get his music out there. He knows he's not an easy sell, but he's happy with the results so far. "Alternative" has sold a modest 18,000 copies, according to Neilsen SoundScan, but Benson is charged.
"I'm really happy; I feel like it's a huge success," he says. "I do want to succeed commercially; I have no problem saying that.... At one time I felt that commercial success could potentially ruin what I have. I don't know, it's a fragile way to be, and I just don't feel so fragile anymore. I just feel certain about what it is I do, and nothing is going to change that."
Where: Spaceland, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., L.A.
When: 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Info: (323) 661-4380