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Music: The Second Time Around

3 minute read
Josh Tyrangiel

There were approximately 12,000 albums released in 2003, and 11,990 of them were made by nice young men with acoustic guitars and perplexing love lives. Maybe that’s an overstatement, but with Ryan Adams, John Mayer, Ben Lee, Jason Mraz, Chris Carrabba, Evan Dando, David Gray and countless others, you could easily hold a Lilith Fair stocked with sensitive white guys, though to exhaust the supply, it would have to be performed over several agonizing days, sort of a James Taylor Ring Cycle. There are worse things than a glut of smart songwriters, but you can’t help thinking that if a few of them started churning out some speed-metal tunes, they might be doing themselves–and record stores–a big favor.

Which leads to the defining question about Ben Kweller. What has he got that all the other guitar-toting guys don’t? Most obviously, Kweller has a tale of woe. In 1996, when he was just 15, his garage band, Radish, was signed by Nirvana guru Danny Goldberg to a major-label deal and was subsequently profiled at Proustian length in the New Yorker. The album that came out of the experience, Restraining Bolt, wasn’t bad, but Kweller could not have marshaled more jealous cultural forces against him had he been handed a MacArthur genius grant at graduation. There were cheers when the album tanked.

Radish split in 1998, and Kweller has recovered admirably. He is now on his second solo album, On My Way, which happens to be his first as a legal, beer-drinking adult. On My Way has some impressive moments, largely because it seems to care so little about being impressive. It feels like a bunch of songs Kweller put together casually and recorded impeccably.

Most of Kweller’s demographic peers approach lyrics like math, and their work is burdened by an oppressive emotional exactitude. Kweller’s a pop guy, and he’s not afraid to fill out a verse with some la-la-lalas, as he does on the excellent, pace-shifting love song Hospital Bed. At times he’s capable of cleverness, but mostly On My Way reveals he’s after warm, natural harmonies and moments of girl-inspired euphoria. On the jangly standout Hear Me Out, his various strengths come together for four great minutes of yearning.

Still, On My Way has trouble transcending the preciousness of its genre, chiefly since Kweller is barely aware of the world beyond his window. The twee My Apartment feels like a reworking of Weezer’s even more twee In the Garage, and at 22, Kweller is still vulnerable to bouts of yearbook wisdom, like “All the answers and the dreams/Will come to you in time.”

What carry him through these rough patches are his voice–which has a wry charisma reminiscent of the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus–and terrific production by Ethan Johns. On My Way is barely electric, but Johns (whose father Glyn was a pioneer in intimate recording techniques and one of the early producers on Let It Be) finds a way to make it rock at every opportunity. For now, Kweller is still just a guy with a guitar. But he’s aging quite well. –By Josh Tyrangiel

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