Saturday, October 17, 2009
#14 Album of the Decade and #31 Song of the Decade- Ben Kweller
#14- Album of the Decade- Ben Kweller- Sha Sha
Ben Kweller- "Commerce, TX"
#31 Song of the Decade- Ben Kweller- "Wasted & Ready"
John Seabrook's smug 2001 book of culture criticism, Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, devotes an entire chapter to the precocity of a then-unknown Ben Kweller. Seabrook follows a teenaged Kweller and his band Radish as he's courted by major labels. At one point Kweller's at Jimmy Iovine's house freestyling with Tom Petty, and there are about ten times when an expert calls him "the next Kurt Cobain." Kweller was a songwriting prodigy mining Cobain's quiet-loud dynamics, and he could play almost any instrument you gave him. Seabrook spells out the seeming randomness of the buzz surrounding this kid from Greenville, Texas, and Seabrook captures the herd mentality of record executives flying out there without knowing anything about him. By the time the chapter ends, a lot of money and attention has been invested in Kweller, and he seems oblivious to how much is actually riding on his nascent career. Seabrook has asked "why him?" and we don't have much of an answer.
We still don't. Nine years after the events of the book, Kweller's career has stalled. He's trying to cross over to a country audience. He's known primarily as a girly type of act because of earlier bills he shared with Guster and Evan Dando. He's trapped on Dave Matthews' label, which is doing nothing to promote his talent. Worst of all, he has neutered his songwriting's more unique flourishes to fit into some idea he has of what a traveling bluesy roots-rock working man's hero should be. What made him great the only time he actually had to prove all of his promise, his debut Sha Sha, was that he was so oblivious to all of these outside factors. Perhaps a voice like his was never meant to hit it big. After all, Cobain probably wasn't supposed to either.
Sha Sha is an album a great songwriter makes when he's twenty, before he gets political, before he gets stream-of-consciousness, before he's trying to be Dylan, before he knows that what he's doing is called approximate rhyme. The lyrics here are rough around the edges. They reach for connections that aren't always there, like calling butterflies "passive-aggressive." They leave blanks for us to fill in with non sequiturs like, "Sex reminds her of eating spaghetti." "Maxed out like a credit card" isn't exactly Rimbaud, but it's better than what I was writing at twenty.
Sha Sha is a perfect storm of these eccentricities. Most rappers' first album is their best because it's their entire autobiography and manifesto delivered in one fell swoop. They say everything that has been building up inside of them for their entire lives and capitalize on the now-or-never urgency of a debut. They are able to channel their message and worldview into one album, and they aren't jaded enough to compromise that point of view. Ben Kweller, a guy who used to cover Vanilla Ice live, presents the same naive but breathless weltershaung as someone like The Game. It's all-or-nothing, and he delivers summery, indelible power-pop with an equal facility for fist-pumpers and honest, heartfelt ballads. Yes, it's a little girly, but other than maybe Is This It?, it's hard to find a record this decade that is as top-to-bottom fun to listen to. Kweller finds a way to overcome a limited, straining voice with his gift for melody, and nowhere is his exuberance and dusted-off brilliance more evident than on "Wasted & Ready."
With its wandering slides leading up to deafening power chords, "Wasted & Ready" sounds like something Alex Chilton would have written if he had been raised eating barbecue and watching Cowboys games. When I saw Kweller live in Philadelphia two years ago, it seemed as if everyone was waiting for him to wrap up the love songs and hit them with what was buried deep in their collective drunk playlists. It's a playing-dumb classic, a hit that never became a hit. Kweller's guitar playing has never sounded more muscular, and his reedy intonation has a way of making platitudes sound immediate and cathartic. Especially when he multi-tracks his own voice on the song's last fourth, we're reminded of just how far a little obliviousness can go. Kurt Cobain would be proud.