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Ben Kweller - Ben Kweller  Print E-mail
Music Disc Reviews Audio CD
Written by Matt Fink   
Friday, 01 December 2006

format:    16-bit CD
performance:    6
sound:    8
release year:    2006
label:    ATO
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

Though he still looks exactly the same as he did when he was the 16-year-old frontman of grunge-pop flameouts Radish, being groomed as Kurt Cobain’s successor, Ben Kweller has grown up a great deal over the last 10 years. A songwriter who has been perpetually poised on the edge of greatness, already dropped by his label and in danger of becoming nothing more than a rock and roll footnote at the same age his peers are picking their college majors, his reemergence as a quirky classic rocker with 2002’s Sha Sha was more than a solid release by a 20-year-old – it marked the arrival of a legitimate songwriting talent. Free from major label pressure and able to indulge his inner Elton John, he proved himself equally adept at jangly power-pop as he was at piano ballads and straight-ahead garage rock, and the shaggy kid from Texas was New York City’s DIY darling. But somewhere along the way he realized he needed to make albums befitting a serious songwriter, and out came the studious and overly precious On My Way, the 2004 release that was long on serious studio craftsmanship but comparably short on Kweller’s eccentricities as a songwriter. The guy who just two years before played songs with the energy of a kid plugging in his first electric guitar once again sounded like a songwriter who was more concerned with being taken seriously than he was with simply writing a good song. He just didn’t sound like he was having fun anymore.

Secluding himself in a London studio with just a producer and an engineer, his self-titled third release is Kweller’s attempt to regain some of that do-it-yourself energy. Like Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder before him, Kweller plays every instrument – every guitar solo, piano trill, and drum fill – and the result is an album that treads the middle ground between his freewheeling early work and his more somber and austere recent recordings. With warmly compressed production and a collection of richly jangling classic rock textures, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are obvious touchstones, and Kweller seems more than willing to invite such comparisons. Unfortunately, Kweller lacks the storytelling ability of Petty and the gravitas of Springsteen, often settling for catchy but unimaginative hooks and passable but not very clever lyrics. Despite a triumphantly bounding piano hook and sturdy promises of fidelity, opener “Run” is nearly derailed with amateurish lyrical couples that rhyme “run” with “fun” and rely on broken down escapist clichés. Things only get slightly more interesting from there.

By song two, Kweller is firmly entrenched in his sensitive yet restless persona, exploring the usual troubadour tropes of restiveness (“I Gotta Move”), travel (“Penny on the Train Track”) and the desire to chase the rock and roll dream (“I Don’t Know Why”). That said, Kweller occasionally stumbles into the worst kind of reflexive songwriting, where the writer writes mostly about being a songwriter, and all of the attendant problems and pleasures associated with that occupation. That’s not to say that Kweller is in any way playing the role of a contrived character, as there is no reason to doubt that he’s writing from lived experience and genuine insight. The problem is, his insights are so commonplace that it’s impossible to see them as anything more than the musings of a pretty typical 25-year-old.

Lucky for Kweller, his abilities as an arranger and craftsman are far ahead of his skills as a lyricist. Though he is capable of turning out a solid slab of power-pop, his real skills are with piano-led ballads, as the delicate rise-and-fall and plaintively shifting piano chords of “Until I Die” and “Nothing Happening” perfectly fit his lovable hangdog persona and softly playful vocals. When he injects a little mid-tempo energy to the bittersweet yet rousing choruses of “Sundress” – a track with a predictably endearing trajectory through a solemn piano intro, sing along choruses, and a splashy breakaway ending – it makes nakedly ambitious ear candy of the highest order.

In the end, Kweller’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness: he writes catchy pop songs… that are just nice enough to make you think of other, more original songwriters. But where he once wrote songs that bristled with his own wide-eyed wonder at the creative process, he’s now an old hand, writing songs that sound like the mature 25-year-old he now is. Worse yet, he has never recaptured the carefree energy or ambition of his earliest solo recordings, taking what once seemed to be Brian Wilson-like potential and settling for Billy Joel-like results. And that’s a shame, because Kweller has a genuinely endearing persona, an evocative and vulnerable voice, and an ear for distinct melodies. He might be having fun again, but what he doesn’t have is the imagination needed to write songs that aren’t third generation variants of his heroes. Until he proves otherwise, he’ll simply be another by-the-books songwriter you won’t remember ten years from now.

Produced by British hitmaker Gil Norton (Foo Fighters, Counting Crows, Jimmy Eat World), the album is full of richly-layered yet dryly-executed textures, retaining a classic rock feel throughout. With Kweller’s vocals and piano presented at the center of the mix, his melodies are effectively and clearly executed, and he proves himself to be an incredibly adept one-man band. All in all, the album sounds like it’s exactly what he wanted: a singer-songwriter album that sounds like it was made 25 years ago.

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