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.

Monday, October 12, 2009

LSU-Florida: Diary of a Letdown

Lately I've been feeling as if I'm a sixty-year-old man living in a twenty-five-year-old man's body. Even though I'm back in my home state among friends in Tiger football, I've been content to grouse around my apartment complaining about LSU via supercilious tweets. But when my brother-in-law came through with a ticket to #4 LSU against #1 Florida, and P.T. flew in for the game from Massachusetts, I knew I had to play the young man's game with an all-day tailgate. I took these terrible pictures.

To give you an idea of how crowded Baton Rouge gets on a gameday, this is about two miles away from the stadium on Highland, where I parked. Six hours before kickoff.

I made sure to wear my walking shoes. Speaking of being sixty years old, I have designated walking shoes.

Considering that I've never lived in Baton Rouge, I have a lot of memories of the city. During the post-Katrina semester when many of my friends were making do at disparate Louisiana campuses, PT and I visited our friend Karl in the 225. I snuck a fifth of Jack Daniel's into this diner under my jacket, and it slipped out, smashing into a million pieces. The funny part of the story, however, is when we walked to Karl's temporary apartment to crash. We got home before him or his roommates, whom we had never met. Figuring that these roommates wouldn't react too well to weird, unindentified drunk dudes sleeping on their floor, we wrote "Karl's Friends" in Sharpie on sheets of looseleaf and taped the signs to our chests before we passed out. College.

If you ask the proprietor of this restaurant, Roul, how juicy his burgers are, he'll say, "Juicy like a pussy." It's charming.

Beware that none of these pictures are composed. I don't even bother to get a shot of anyone's face. Anyway, P.T.'s buddy hooked us up with this tailgate party, sponsored by an organization called S.H.A.R.T., which stands for something stupid. If you want to know the difference between SEC football tailgating and any other inferior gathering that calls itself tailgating, all you have to know is that this party had satellite TV, thirteen kegs, all manners of roasted pork, and its own monogrammed coozies.

And this punch, which was gone before we got there, much like any hint of LSU offense.

What has a longer corny t-shirt shelf-life: the Got Blah-Blah-Blah? construction or the Price of Blah-Blah-Blah? Priceless... arrangement? Both of them have been going ten years easily.

This was delicious until it gave me food poisoning.

About two hours before game time, the LSU players march down Stadium Drive with the Golden Band from Tigerland. I'm waiting for them and looking for my brother-in-law, who is one of these 90,000 people. Miraculously, I found him and my ticket.

Les Miles and his poo-eating grin are somewhere down there.

About forty-five minutes before kickoff. This was the last time I would see LSU in the end zone that night.

I don't think I've heard more virulent language than the cursing directed at Tebow on Saturday. Between that and the dude who punched a Gator fan in the face for no reason, I reminded myself to wait a while to bring any kid to a game. This photo was taken on Florida's touchdown drive, the only lapse in what was a pretty tight defensive game from the Tigers. I would have taken some pictures of JoJeff airing it out or Russell Shepard being used in creative packages or Charles Scott stretching the defense with plays other than off-tackle dives. Unfortunately, none of those things happened.

By the fourth quarter, when it was clear that LSU just could not measure up to the #1 team in the nation, my entertainment came from the old boozer sitting next to me, reaching down for his flask in this picture. He was the type of drunk who just says the same two things over and over. If it wasn't "that facemask penalty really hurt us," it was the more emphatic: "How do they all know to look over at the sideline at the same time like that? I'll be goddamned! How do they do that? You figure that out you call me. I'mma give you my card." Most people, my brother-in-law included, would ignore the dude, but I just goaded him. "You know how they all look at the same time? The coach probably grabs their facemasks and pulls them over during practice." I was sobering up by this point, but I should've asked him for some of whatever was helping him cope with this game.

Congratulations to the Florida Gators, who took advantage of the tentative nature of our offense and controlled the clock with their own conservative offensive attack. Their touchdown should have been called back, and the center kept turning his head before the snap, only to get called for a false start once. But good game nonetheless. LSU is ranked #10 in both polls after the loss, which, honestly, is probably where we belong right now.

I love attending conference games in the heart of the season, but I'm 0-2 at Florida contests and might have to return to my couch for the team's own good. I'll do my fair share of grousing from there against Auburn. LSU football is shaving so many years off my life that I just might be sixty by now.