FOREWORD: Gracious pop-rooted singer-songwriter Ben Kweller was taught to play guitar by his father, a Greenville, Texas-based doctor whose school buddy, veteran rock guitarist, Nils Lofgren, got the talented thirteen-year-old a record contract. But when Kweller’s over-hyped teen combo, Radish, couldn’t get decent mainstream exposure for ’93 debut, Restraining Bolt, he resourcefully moved on to a successful solo career.
I got to do a phoner with Kweller in ’04, when he was promoting commendable live-in-the-studio album, On My Way. In ’06, he played all the instruments on a mellifluent self-titled disc. Then, he stepped into rural countrified territory for ‘09s divergent Changing Horses, utilizing pedal steel and dobro players. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Sometimes outrageous media hype and record company interference could destroy the aspirations of even the most resilient, talented young artists looking to ascend puerile teen idolatry. Happily, Ben Kweller overcame such early obstacles to become one of America’s most admired musicians.
After gaining major label access leading post-grunge Texas high school band Radish, whose ’96 album, Restraining Bolt, showed promise despite instigating corporate tyranny, Kweller grew tired of bullying music execs and prejudicial Lone Star rednecks and headed North to live with his girlfriend, Liz, in coastal Guilford, Connecticut.
Inspired by Manhattan’s anti-folk scene, he decided to move with his significant other to nearby Brooklyn, assembling ‘00s roughhewn DIY independent solo project, Freak Out, It’s Ben Kweller. Soon, he constructed ‘02s more polished, band-oriented Sha Sha, for stalwart singer-songwriter Dave Matthews’ ATO Records (an RCA subsidiary). A folk-spirited pure pop sureshot, the vibrant Sha Sha appealed to hip urbanites, curious teen damsels, and sleek post-collegiate geeks alike. Its stony tempo-changing rocker “Wasted & Ready” and solemn Country-derived “Family Tree” (based on the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping” acoustic riff) reveal spectral contrasts, balancing hard, loud defiance against brittle, soft passivity.
Deciding he wanted to create more distinct rock ‘n’ roll using a simpler old school approach, Kweller hired Ethan Johns (Kings Of Leon/ Ryan Adams), son of storied produced Glyn Johns (Beatles/ Rolling Stones/ The Who/ Led Zeppelin) to handle boardroom chores. Working live-in-the-studio without headphones and using few overdubs, Kweller’s exuberant On My Way boasts improved compositional diversity, better melodic cohesion, and ambling guitar spunk.
On My Way’s rapturous opening declaration, “I Need You Back,” gets the proceedings going. Joyously begging for the adulation of an erstwhile love interest, its catchy repetitive chorus convincingly pleads for redemption. Just as marvelous is headstrong undulation, “The Rules,” an impulsive dual guitar blaster bristling with contagiously melodious sweeps, compact rhythmic implosions, and screaming lyrical exhortations compulsively similar to fellow solo male artist Ted Leo. Keeping up the hastening pace, “Down” builds to a frothy crescendo as Kweller determinedly bellows ‘when I’m in your arms/ nothing can bring me down’ at the top of his lungs. After the Dylanesque sentimental piano reflection, “Living Life,” the savagely snarled “Ann Disaster” takes a familiar ‘60s guitar riff along for an exasperated ride.
Were On My Way’s songs bouncing around in your head for awhile? They seem so fully developed.
B.K.: I had the songs finished, but I’d only show the guys tunes at soundcheck. We’d play it and it’d sound great but I quickly decided not to show them more new songs because I wanted to wait until we got in the studio. That’s why it sounds raw, live, and spontaneous. This new batch has faster tempos because that’s how they were written. They have a more driving beat.
“Hospital Bed” particularly sounds heavily worked on. It’s nearly a medley with its piano boogie shuffle taking on a shifty tempo change.
Believe it or not, that didn’t take very long. I’m lucky to be playing with great musicians. Rock and roll is pretty easy if you’re a good enough musician and if you’re all on the same page. You can do crazy stuff. The hardest part to get was the slowed down changeover to the verse. The sped up part wasn’t that hard.
On the other hand, “My Apartment” is a simpler tinkled acoustic breakdown.
That’s one of the