It's low-hanging fruit for music critics, comparing ascending acts to archetypes like Dylan, Springsteen or, in the case of Young Hines and Brendan Benson, Lennon and McCartney. When I test the latter on Benson over the phone, he laughs and protests, "Oh no! Don't you say that! Don't you say that!"
Hines, who's proud of the time he spent playing Lennon's role in top Beatles tribute bands — justifiably so — responds differently. "I was totally expecting to have a brother in The Beatles or something with Brendan," he says lightheartedly in a separate conversation. "But I think one of the first things I asked [him was], 'You listen to The Beatles?' He's like, 'Nah. I like the Stones.' "
Sure, the analogy is a stretch. Though Hines' full-length debut Give Me My Change bristles with angst and artistry much more in the spirit of Lennon than of Cobain, there's just one track on Benson's fifth and latest album, What Kind of World, that conjures McCartney: the effortlessly melodic rock ballad "No One Else but You."
The point — and there is a point to this whole Fab Four trip — is both that Hines and Benson express themselves very differently as singers and songwriters (though they do share in common pop instincts and analog leanings), and that theirs is a connection that's proving quite productive. First they did a bit of co-writing. Then Benson volunteered to produce Hines' album and put it out on his newly launched indie Readymade Records. And they'll soon hit the road together, even sharing players and amps.
The story of how Benson came to take Hines under his wing is the sort of thing that restores your faith in grassroots talent scouting. Years ago, Hines was driving his girlfriend's car, found a copy of Benson's second album Lapalco, popped it in the CD player and envisioned a new approach to his own music. "Lapalco definitely sent me into home recording mode, really trying to go for an analog sound," he says. "I think that's a great record."
After setting up a tape machine in his house in Chicago, Hines demoed songs like a madman. He gave a CD of them to friends in Nashville (this is his third time living here), and they happened to blast it while painting Benson's house. Far from dismissing their work soundtrack as background noise, Benson decided to cover Hines' song "Only in a Dream."
Hines recalls receiving an email from Benson that went something like this: "'Hi, Young, is this you? I hope you don't mind, but I covered one of your songs and put it up on the Internet. Is that OK?'"
The two of them eventually hung out, but serious collaboration began once Hines permanently relocated to Nashville. Says Benson, "I had just started — I mean, conceptually — started Readymade. My manager [Emily White] and I were putting it together. So I asked [Hines] if he would want to be on Readymade and let me produce it. And he agreed. Honestly, my role in that record was really just making sure things sounded good, and making sure everyone was present to play. The songs were there."
Hines didn't have much to sweat on his end, either. "I have this connection to [Brendan's] music," he says, "so I felt a lot of trust."
Hines' Give Me My Change — which came out earlier this month — was Readymade's first release. There are plenty of easygoing tunes on the album, but it's telling that he chose as the title track a song with a feral, swinging rock 'n' roll attack. During that one — plus others like "No One Knows" and "Can't Explode" — you feel the full force of his ability to summon unhinged yet highly musical drama.
Not that there's any trace of agitation in our interview. "When I'm talking to you on the phone or I'm talking to Brendan, I'm on my best behavior," says Hines congenially. "I really try to be. I've gotten old enough now — over 30 — and realized restraint and not being hot-headed. ... If it's the landlord, if it's taxes, things set me off, and I feel passionate about it. And I really believe in human freedom, and I don't believe that love is something that didn't work in the '60s. So maybe my music pushes people towards love."
Benson's new album is the second of five Readymade LPs planned for this year. It's an especially sure-handed and direct batch of songs; a departure from opaquely clever wordplay. What comes through is clear-as-day confessions of a guy wrestling with the feeling that he doesn't have a lot of control over the world around him.
"I don't know if it's fatherhood or marriage or age or what it is," offers Benson, "but I think I'm coming full circle. ... When I first started out, my songs were so honest, almost unbearably. I can't listen to any of that stuff now. I say I can't listen to it, but it was my best stuff, you know? The most heartfelt stuff. ... I lost that. I started focusing on other things, like engineering the record, or what kind of cool vintage guitar I'm going to play on the song, instead of 'Is there a song?' "
What Kind of World was made with musicians who've gained Benson's trust, The Posies' Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow and drummer Brad Pemberton, to name three. "That's the kind of vision I've always had, kind of an army, or maybe less aggressively, a family," Benson says.
Or as Emily White, the business mind behind Readymade, puts it, "At the end of the day, whether Brendan likes it or not, he's the A&R person."
Surprisingly for a guy with a solo career dating to the '90s, Benson has never been fond of going it alone. "Every time I record a record or tour a record," he says, "I would put together a band that I always hoped would be my band, like, permanently. But I just couldn't afford to retain them. ... Ultimately, or invariably, I should say, they just want to move on and usually want to do their own thing."
Of course, before there was a Readymade family, there was that group effort with Jack White. "The Raconteurs were truly, in the strictest sense of the word, a band," says Benson. "We shared it all. We shared the glory and we shared the not-so-glorious stuff. And we wrote together from the get-go. So finally I got to live out my fantasy of being in a band."