Ben Kweller: Changing Horses
No depression in Kweller’s country
If there’s one bad thing about Ben Kweller’s previous three albums, it’s that they’re almost too affable, strung through with giddy piano, bouncy drums and bop-bopping, feel-good choruses about having fun, growing up, falling—and staying—in love. It’s punchy pop too sweetly guileless and too damn catchy to get grumpy about, which makes his fourth album, the self-consciously countrified Changing Horses, an even tougher bull to rope. He’s nodded to his Texas roots before, but on this collection meant to play up his twangy side, he seems scared of edging too far into the darkness of country music’s long, rich tradition. And what a shame: All them heartbreaks and hard times ain’t exactly Kweller’s lyrical home turf, but this was his chance to rough it up a bit—bruise a few ribs on a bucking bronco, cry some tears into a Lonestar. Instead, Changing Horses is coddled by dutiful touches of dobro, strummy gee-tar and a curiously Palinesque banishment of all g’s at the ends of words. The album serves neither Kweller nor country music. “Old Hat” and “Sawdust Man” mostly work, but the requisite pedal-steel flourishes of “Hurtin’ You” and “Wantin’ Her Again” could easily be traded for some infinitely more satisfying power-pop piano work; the lusty-boots ambling of “Gypsy Rose” and “Ballad of Wendy Baker” axed for two more unbearably adorable odes to the longtime girlfriend Kweller recently married; and the tepid character sketches of “Fight” and “On Her Own” scrapped altogether. That leaves “Things I Like To Do,” so sweet it’d make Johnny Cash’s molars ache, and “Homeward Bound,” a disarming barroom lament for a teenage runaway that finds Kweller’s decidedly un-whiskeyed voice aching with its first strains of hallmark country desperation. As the short album’s last track, though, it sparks some heartache of its own: Just as Kweller seems to be breaking in his boots, he saddles back up and rides off into the sunset. Hopefully he’s headed back to the city, where he belongs.
Listen to Ben Kweller's "Old Hat" from Changing Horses on his MySpace page.