Ever since Ben Kweller flopped down upon the floor of stages to play his keyboard many years ago, we were all instantly hooked. His uncanny knack for creating simple pop tunes had long been known, but at such an early point in his career it was hard not to be flabbergasted by the young lad. Now, two albums later, can he still win us all over with Changing Horses?
His first release brought us a slew of pop tunes that seemed to be centered around creative tunes written strictly on his piano, but then he brought out the rock with his release of On My Way. If anything, Ben Kweller couldn’t be pigeonholed for a staple sound, and this album is just another example of his musical maneuvering. We find Ben channeling his inner country soul throughout the entirety of his newest release.
Sure, it’s nice to see a singer-songwriter push forward into new ground, and we all saw this coming with the release of his latest EP. Still, the twang of the slide guitar seems to be a step to far in a different direction from Ben. It comes off entirely forced, as if Ben wasn’t really pushing to break new ground so much as he was trying his best not to fall into old patterns. He had tried it the ways he knew best, so why not go in an entirely Texas direction?
For one thing, the clever sensibility that he always maintained seems to be a bit far off on each of these songs. “Gypsy Rose” sounds too much as if he wanted to go down the path of the forefathers of folk music, resting on gentle guitar plucking. You can juxtapose that with “Sawdust Man,” which may share similarities to Dr. Dog, but comes off more in the vein of a teenager trying to write the score to his latest homemade Western movie.
Now, the one thing that always remains true for Ben is his ability to keep you interested by holding onto his voice. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a soft spot for some of his better traits, namely this spectacular voice. The way he can manipulate his inflection mid-melody is definitely something you could use to pass the time. However, sometimes it just doesn’t seem to fit the country-mold of the album as a whole.
You’ll find a few gems lying beneath the covers here, such as “Ballad of Wendy Baker,” which comes across like a more subdued version of some of his earlier releases. Here he lays his voice on the line, backed by appropriate guitar strumming and simple string instrumentation. It’s one of the shining moments. “Things I Like to Do” is very simplistic in its lyrical content, but that is precisely where Ben has always succeeded. He’s never been one to get to deep with the discussion in his lyrics, and simple suits him just fine. It just might not be enough for most fans. Even “On Her Own,” which seems to channel a little Pete Yorn vocal has some fine elements worthy of repeated listening; it just seems like these moments come few and far between.
Ben Kweller has always supplied us with hit after hit, creating seamless albums you could play all the way through. Changing Horses, in the title alone, demonstrates a move in a different direction, as he can no longer ride the same one-trick pony to stardom. Sadly, this might not be a winning horse either.
Download: Ben Kweller – Ballad of Wendy Baker [MP3]