Trying to be cute never works – witness Jar Jar Binks, Jewel and that kid in English class wearing ringer tees and stupid hats. Just as feigned emotion invariably cries out in a nasal whine, counterfeit cute always comes on like a graduate student instructor at Rick’s: annoying, forced and pathetic. Before Ben Kweller, there was another Ben who played cute, younger brother to the music industry’s sad, balding, alcoholic older one, Ben Lee. Just like him, Kweller’s going to get some celebrities at his shows, a few “big break” opportunities and probably another record or two, but none of it will register anywhere. He will vanish like the child actor who played the kid in ET – the one whom he is so desperately trying to defeat in an X-treme Cute-Off.
From the first track this record reeks of overstated influence and attempted adorable allusion. “How Should It Be (Sha Sha)” sounds like high school kids coked up on Sonic Youth, trying to cover “Summer Nights” from “Grease.” Camp and crusty credibility have never been worse bedfellows. “Family Tree” could be a lost E-side from Sloan’s One Chord to Another, and “In Other Words” betrays that a certain somebody grew up listening to ’80s power piano ballads. The rockers on this record like “Wasted and Ready” and “Commerce, TX” illustrate what would happen if Nirvana and rock mode-Elliot Smith babysat the neighbor kid long enough to teach him how to wrap his babyfat hands around the guitar, but little else.
Like the child aspiring to be as cool as he perceives his babysitter, Kweller’s “Look at me I’m cool like you!” (or them to those of us who don’t mingle in rock circles as “lofty” as the dead and nearly dead) doesn’t stop at the musical level – he goes for cool’s jugular in the lyrics. Cool emerges unscathed, Kweller remains covered in his own indie blood, trying to figure out what went wrong. Part of the problem is Kweller’s semi-serious case of inverted Ben Folds’ Disease. Whereas the disease’s namesake and others like him swear and sound nerd-tough to seem younger, Kweller does it to seem older. He gets all worked up at one point in “Make It Up” and sings, “You don’t tell me what’s going on / Fucking make up your mind, stop dragging on / They’re only words, they don’t hurt.” I don’t know where Kweller got that last idea about words not hurting, but lines such as, “I’m maxxed out like a credit card” pain me like no other.
Speaking of pain, someone get Kweller some. Perhaps three or four heartbreaks and about five painful years down the line this kid might have some material worth granting attention. Thankfully, we’ll never know because by then his career will be long over. Cute almost always grows up ugly (have you seen Ron Howard lately?), and the future doesn’t bode well for pseudo-cute either.