Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ben Kweller - 'Changing Horses'

Plenty of people made a stink about Bob Dylan going electric, but how many will flip assorted lids over Ben Kweller (ex-Radish, “your favorite sugar-metal band”) going acoustic on new album Changing Horses? Probably not many, and while it might seem unfair to draw a line between Kweller and a legend like Dylan, it’s hard not to think of the two here. See, with Changing Horses, Kweller has essentially made his own Nashville Skyline, a brief, easy going country record. It’s charming in its simplicity, honest in its intent. And while Kweller completely drops the vestiges of his old alt-rock style here, the change isn’t nearly as abrupt as one might think.

Older Kweller cuts like “Family Tree” and “Living Life” were always flecked with country/bluegrass hints, so Changing Horses is more an exploration of his influences than anything else. And where some former rockers have flailed a bit in the genre (Oh hey Jenny Lewis! No I didn’t buy Acid Tongue, why?), Kweller sounds, ironically, more assured with his laidback delivery. It helps that, lyrically, the songs are still more or less in keeping with BK’s style post-Sha Sha. He gets a little less silly with each release, that’s for sure, but ultimately these are still songs about wanderin’ ladies (“On Her Own”) and dudes hangin’ out (“Homeward Bound”).

By this point, I don’t think Kweller is ever going to record another album of grungey Weezer-esque loser jams, but I’m finally OK with that. Dude still has a thing for hooks (again I cite “On Her Own”). Just because Changing Horses is loose doesn’t mean it’s lazy – the guy still writes pop songs. “Fight” is a rousing call to action; Kweller is sure to get toes a-tapping when he hits the lines “Playin’ every card that’s been dealt to me / Ya know, some days are aces and some days are faces / Well, some days are twos and threes” during the third verse. Same goes for opening track “Gypsy Rose,” which constantly fluctuates between loud/fast and slow/quiet (It’s almost like bluegrass Nirvana!).

Of course, for all its lack of fuss, there are plenty of aspects to Changing Horses that might turn folks off. First off, it’s a country record. So those who “like everything but country” are going to be stereotypically disappointed. Plus, Horses isn’t much of a rocker, although a few of these songs do kill live. Older fans might not be turned off by the new sound, but they may be dismayed that, all these years later, Kweller is still rerecording his early songs – “Wantin’ Her Again” is back. Finally, sometimes Kweller gets a lil too cutesy. Lines like “I like likin’ you” from “Things I Like to Do” or “I never wanna be the old hat you put on your pretty head” from “Old Hat” might taste too saccharine for some.

Still, though, it’s great to have the guy back. All these years after “Wasted & Ready” (and, uh, “Little Pink Stars”), Kweller is still turning out pop tuneskis that are catchy, fun, and heartfelt. While reality occasionally creeps into his lyrics (“On Her Own” uses Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath as a backdrop), and that twang has gotten a wee bit stronger, Kweller still knows how to write a good pop song.

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