Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ben Kweller

About a decade ago, a trio of unlikely collaborators were drawn together by the sole virtue of their first names: Ben. Among the combined talents of The BensFolds (NMT), Kweller and Lee – was a distinct ability to churn out spiffy vocal harmonies very much in the Crosby, Stills & Nash tradition, especially on the group's hallmark, "Just Pretend." And while all three contributors had strong track records in spinning out quality harmonies, many assumed the elder statesman, Mr. Folds, was most responsible for the vintage-sounding voice arrangements. But perhaps, after spending some time with Go Fly A Kite – the fifth full-length studio record of the youngest Ben, Mr. Kweller, out February 7 on his own The Noise Company label – it may become apparent it was Kweller's influence that was most responsible for shaping the harmonic blends.

If you're reading about Ben Kweller here and thinking the name rings a bell outside of my treatment of The Bens, you're not mistaken. You see, Kweller has been at work crafting highly-catchy, but well-arranged pop-rock for nearly two decades, despite his relative youth (30). After growing up as the next-door neighbor in Greenville, Texas, to well-traveled and respected rock guitarist Nils Lofgren, Kweller parlayed his neighborly connections into a full-on contract with Mercury Records for his band, Radish. While turning over bassists as often as Spinal Tap lost drummers, Radish managed to generate some indie rock airplay in the late '90s, especially for their 1997 single, "Little Pink Stars." Alas, the brush of indie stardom didn't last for Radish, and the group disbanded in 1999 as Kweller directed his energies to the solo career which would eventually lead to this week's review.

Kweller's Texan roots allows him to inhabit the intersection of rock, blues, country and western influences to arrive at a sound that is both textured and accessible. Beginning with the hard-charging, "Mean to Me," the range of his musical foundations are apparent. The muted, punctuated guitar of the chorus combines with smooth harmonies out of the 80's pop era, while the loose and ringing verses suggest the punkish energy of The Who or The Kinks. He's also learned not to stretch out a good idea more than is needed, yielding a 3:20 runtime that nods to the pop sensibilities of They Might Be Giants (NMT) or Butch Walker (NMT).

If you're wondering where all the CSN-flavored harmonies so highly touted in the lede are, your wait is not long. The countrified blues of "Out the Door" will have you anticipating a well-segued transition to "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" even though the song doesn't actually need to be excellent on its own. By just allowing the piece to roll along on its buoyancy, Kweller demonstrates he's studied his Browne and Zevon in addition to Crosby, Stills and Nash by locating the listener's expectations and then trusting his ability to satisfy them. Even better, he wields his favorite crutch word – "honey" – as Petty deployed "down" and Scott Weiland yawned out each "time," a trend that's continued across Kweller's solo catalog.

As a multi-instrumentalist capable of performing every note of his material, Kweller's talents in both songwriting and performance are on full display here in "Jealous Girl." Arching his course of influences towards the driving Americana of Springsteen and Seger, Kweller's perpetual rolling piano work steals the number from the outset but also points back to his own "Penny on the Train Track" off his 2006 self-titled release – quite possibly his finest solo product to date. The pair of numbers should be a back-to-back staple of his live shows for years to come.

Meanwhile, the slow waltz of "Gossip" the ideal change-of-pace number following its more vibrant predecessors. The waltz figures suggest a certain inherent lightheartedness, but like other clever songwriters before him – the likes Lou Reed, They Might Be Giants tandem of Flansbaugh and Linnell or the Barenaked Ladies' Page (NMT) and Robertson – the jaunty signature only masks the lyrics deeper undercurrents of isolationism and cynicism. But the record's darker moments don't stagnate too long, as the harmonic joy from earlier return via "Full Circle." A touch more front porch bluegrass than "Out the Door," with a strolling piano line, the tune could have as easily been crafted up on a West Virginia holler in the 1880s, during an early-era Flying Burrito Brothers session in '69 or a more rootsy Wilco (NMT) adventure in the late '90s – it has that timeless ease to it that is not often replicated. The only slight misstep comes in the third verse, with the "ooh-ooos" and "high-ew-eh" either ill-advised or improperly recorded; they're just too out of place with the rest of song to work properly.

Actually, Kweller's greatest threat going forwarding may be the challenge of replicating his studio vocals in live settings. It sounds as if all the harmonies are overtakes of Kweller manning the various parts, and for the record, it's a phenomenal success. However, will his live band be able to replicate the magic of several Bens singing with himself (unless he were able to get, you know, a couple other guys named Ben to help him out).

Elsewhere, the piano-driven fits and starts of "Justify Me" recall Kweller's "Hospital Bed" off 2004's On My Way, while "The Rainbow" is built from the model kit of a classic McCartneyian piano ballad. Even the album's less exhilarating moments – the straightforward rocker "Free," the dewy, mellow blues of "Miss You" and the brash alt rock of "Time Will Save the Day" are all perfectly enjoyable and far from late-track filler. And by closing things out with the upbeat, gospel-tinged, "You Can Count on Me," Kweller bookends the proceedings with plenty of backbone and spirit, qualities not commonly found in closing numbers.

Come for: "Out the Door"
Stay for: "Jealous Girl"
You'll be surprised by: "Full Circle"  

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