By: Eric Greenwood
Now that he's old enough to have something substantive to say, Ben Kweller reinvents himself, somewhat deceptively, as a sarcastic slacker songwriter in the tradition of Stephen Malkmus and Rivers Cuomo. Kweller spent the late 1990's as the child prodigy star of the Texas trio, Radish, which, despite showcasing Kweller's penchant for melody, harped a bit much on the grunge- after grunge had long been buried. Now that's a fate no one wants to be damned with. So, Radish broke up after disappointing record sales, leaving Kweller bitter and disenchanted. I'm just guessing about that last part, but isn't that how it goes when you're dropped from a label?
Sha Sha immediately reveals Kweller's sharpened musical chops. He's quite the versatile songwriter at 20, showing affinities for everything from power pop to piano ballads to acoustic folk to crackling indie rock- all with a biting sense of humor. Kweller's lyrics carry more than just catchy melodies. He's self-deprecating and self-aware but never crosses the line into smothering self-indulgence: "'nothing isn't nothing, nothing's something that's important to me'/that's right/and everyone's a little nothing that's ok that's how it should be/that's right" ["How It Should Be (Sha Sha)]."
Having been a child star on a major label, it only follows that he would have a few famous faces to call friends. Friends like Evan Dando and Ben Lee seem to have been the biggest influences when it comes to Kweller's quirky pop. Such quirkiness rears it's head on the first single, "Wasted & Ready", which, I'm told, used to be called "The Doom Generation" after, that's right, that horrendous Greg Araki film starring Rose McGowan. The song's dynamics and dirty rocking edges recall Weezer's classic Pinkerton album. Even the lyrics mine the same obsessive weirdness that Rivers Cuomo used to revel in: "she goes above and beyond her call of duty/she is a slut but X think it's sexy/sex reminds her of eating spaghetti/I am wasted but I'm ready."
Kweller slips into his various musical guises with so much ease that you'd think he'd been doing this all his life. Well, I guess he has. Since he was 8 years old, anyway. The Beatles influence of "Family Tree" is unmistakable, as it feels like an updated version of "I'm Only Sleeping" off Revolver. Kweller's voice surprises you with its flexibility. He can slip into a falsetto or belt out a yell without so much as a hint of straining. Kweller's vocal ticks punctuate the dirty rock of "Commerce, TX." Lots of "ooh ooh ooh's" in between the solid, grungy hooks. Kweller really knocks you on your ass with his songwriting ability on the Ben Folds-ish "In Other Words." It's a simple piano ballad, but it's instantly memorable. Somehow it manages to avoid most of the cheese inherent to any piano ballad, and the climactic crescendo is staggeringly good.
Granted, Kweller is still searching for an unique voice, as his music still wears its roots a little too blatantly, but he's definitely on the right track. And when you've got as much talent as he does, you know it's only a matter of time until your songwriting shakes free the influence of your heroes. And even if it takes him another album or two, songs like "No Reason" with its distortion box stomping chorus and infectious hooks or the pop punk anthem "Harriet's Got A Song" with its killer dynamics will keep his seat amongst the top songwriters warm.