4 out of 5 stars
Meet Ben Kweller. The baby-faced, mop-headed singer-songwriter is consistently regarded as one of the nicest guys in music, and he has earned his fair share of next-big-thing buzz over the course of three solo releases. Whether or not he has lived up to his hype is a matter of opinion.
The 21st century is a tough time for the undistinguished pop-rock artist, and aspirations for fame and fortune are simply not realistic. Kweller understands this truth and has never let it bring him down. He makes music for all the right reasons, and his cheery songs are a shining testament to the joy that he brings to anyone who will listen.
Changing Horses maintains the optimistic perspective of past Kweller albums, but musically it provides quite a shock. In Horses, Kweller deserts his bubblegum-pop and rock‘n’roll guises in favor of a country-western persona. This deliberate shift in style can be partially credited to his re-location to his childhood home of Austin, Texas. In a sense, Kweller has grown up by getting back to his roots. The ease with which he performs on Horses signals a maturing artistry free from the chaotic atmosphere of Brooklyn, his former home.
Opener “Gypsy Rose” shows off Kweller’s knack for writing breezy country tunes. In the song, his soulful voice is matched by an easy, walking bass-line and dobro commentary. The careful tempo and trouble-free tone of “Gypsy” evokes a classic image of the old southwest where a man with a 10-gallon hat sits in a rocking chair with his old dying dog as he watches tumbleweeds roll in the distance.
The upbeat “Fight,” on the other hand, calls to mind a trucker rolling along an interstate highway. Trucker life and desert ranches are themes often touched on in the so-called Walmart country genre, but Kweller craftily avoid pop-country cliches in Horses. How does he separate himself from the likes of Garth Brooks and Tobey Keith? The answer is simple: with stellar musicianship and witty lyrics. Pedal steel guitar playfully echoes Kweller’s voice and a blissfully intense piano is sprinkled throughout the album. Thoughtful lines like “I’m like my grandma / playing every single card that’s dealt to me / Well you know some days are aces / and some days are faces / Well some days are twos and threes” hinge on the novelty of the country genre, but are too clever to fall into its potential pitfalls.
“Hurtin’ You” is a gem that balances the urgency of the pedal steel with stunning Fleetwood Mac-like harmonies. On “Things I Like to Do,” Kweller toes the line of childish nonsense but never crosses it. He sings lyrics like “I like listening to my favorite music / when I’m on the bus” (what North Campus freshman can’t relate to that?) and “I like walking into public places / strumming this guitar.” The lines capture Kweller’s aptitude for making mundane routines stimulating and playing music passionately without regard for audience or venue.
Will any tracks off Changing Horses get serious radio play? No. Will most Kweller fans enjoy the album? Probably. Will it provide a nice new musical palette to choose from for a rockin’ live show? Yes. In the world of Ben Kweller, that’s the very definition of success.