(ATO Records) A brave and courageous album -- a pop country record by an indie darling...I can’t honestly admit that I’ve ever listened to any Ben Kweller album from start to finish. I’m certainly not a fan by any means, but his name popped up out of nowhere when a friend sent me a link a few days ago to an article in Austin that sparked my attention with photos of an open-buttoned, flannel-donned Kweller brandishing a wine bottle outside of a trailer in some forlorn part of the city I am honored to call my home. Pictures that rang a little too true hit a little too close to home for a broke joke like myself to just brush off or ignore. The article was a promotional piece for Ben Kweller’s latest full-length effort, Changing Horses, which was released February 3rd on ATO Records. After perusing the content of the article, I decided that the album might be worth a go.
For the record, Ben Kweller has garnered quite a legend for himself in the ACL Fest circuit here in the “Live Music Capital of the World.” As my photographer recalls from his personal experience of ACL Fest 2006:
“Oh man! He came out on stage late, probably 10 minutes late…so people were kinda upset since there's a time slot and all. He came out with a rag to his nose and told everyone that he's been trying to fight a nosebleed all day. Allergies were getting to him. We figured he'd busted his nose up with coke or something…who knows.
But Kweller? I'll believe allergies.
Well, he starts playin' the first number and his nose is literally pouring out blood. People started puking, it was so gross…blood all over his clothes and guitar. Then he asked if anyone had a tampon he could shove up there. So a girl threw a tampon on stage; he put it in, but a minute later...it f-cking expanded! He could barely pull it out it had expanded so much!
He tried playing one more song but was losing so much blood that he had to leave. He almost fainted. It was nuts.
Even better, he came back to town the next year and sold T-shirts exclusively to Austin with fake blood stains on them saying, 'The Return of Ben Kweller.'"
I trust my resources (no matter how shady our dealings may be), and this latest Ben Kweller recommendation has proven true to the rule. Changing Horses is everything you’d want from a kid who grew up under the same goddamned shadow of the Dallas, Texas skyline that I did. Kweller matriculated in the suburbs of Greenville (who I remember playing against back in freshman basketball), and when he says, “Back in the late '80s, early '90s, you couldn't escape Garth Brooks and that sort of country. Not so much the old stuff like Cash and Hank Williams, but the pop country of the day. I mean, if you didn't know 'Roping the Wind' by Garth, it was like not knowing 'Thriller' for my older sister,” he ain’t lying.
...Not that that’s a bad thing. Ironically, man’s affinity for “Top 40” country of the mid-'90s can be a membership card to every small town beer joint and dive bar off the beaten path of the Lone Star State with as much validity as bloodstains on your boots or fake teeth on account of a bull’s hoof to your mouth. As an old mentor of mine once so wisely said, “A man’s song rings only as true as his pedal steel,” and Changing Horses is a marked improvement -- a substantial step toward a deeper, more genuine, bare-boned and honest musical approach for Ben Kweller (as far as I can gather).
“Gypsy Rose” kicks off the tracklisting with a laid back, stand-up bass-line that sets the mood for the entire album. The second song, “Old Hat,” sounds every bit as downtrodden as a pedal steel can bend a heartstring. “Old Hat,” the young and married Kweller admits, was “inspired by something Liz said to a friend after we had an argument. She told her friend on the phone that something I did was 'just old hat.' That's really the worst thing you can be to your wife..." Being myself a married man, I could think of a million other things that I could be (and, regrettably, probably have been) to my wife, but I’ll wager that "Old Hat" certainly fits much more appropriately to a song on a major label album.
Kweller kicks it up a notch with the ruckus revival chorus of “Fight,” as he careens the age-old eternal human battle between the sinful, wrathful desires of the flesh and the more holy, righteous natures of the spirit, singing, “You gotta fight, fight, fight, fight, all the way / You gotta set your sight on the Lord in your life / You gotta fight till your dying day.” It all blends perfectly into context as the reckless rebellion of Kweller’s musical turn in Changing Horses comes face to face with the existential realities of being both a famous musician/songwriter, a husband, and a father (he lives here in Austin with his wife and his young son).
“Hurtin’ You” is a more poppy tune that continues to commandeer the emotive ace card of the pedal steel -- the hammer that pounds a heavier sincerity into the words "we are helpless without you” than perhaps Kweller’s own voice can, despite the volume of his responsibilities.
“Ballad of Wendy Baker” is a soft intermission -- a balancing point in the album that (in my opinion) gives the ear an appetite for the barroom piano clang of “Sawdust Man.” Here is where Kweller’s vocals seem the strongest -- a jaunty, slightly hoarse take on the chorus that (pardon my parallels here) conjure up thoughts of a fella by the name of McCartney (but I shouldn’t get carried away now, should I?).
“Wantin’ Her Again” is one to kick sand around the dancefloor in the arms of a pretty lady on a Saturday night. The good time doesn’t stop but takes a more intimate, slower step with “Things I’d Like To Do” in which Kweller just lays out the plain and simples of his fancies while a shuffling beat is kept on the high hat and snare.
For the ride home, Kweller offers “On Her Own,” a nice, catchy piece that gives you the courage to put your arm around that pretty lady sitting next to you in your ’76 Chevy pickup on that starry Saturday night heading south on Loop 1. And then “Homeward Bound” is a soft closer to keep that warm feeling in your heart and bones a little longer as she watches you pull out of the driveway, roll slowly down the street to the stoplight, and then disappear, red lights fading around the corner.
Oh whoa…pardon me…installing such narratives into these reviews may not be kosher to you readers. I do apologize. Nonetheless, Changing Horses is every bit a narrative of a young man of our time who has all but loosed himself from the shackles of the Dallas suburbs. But, as any kid who ever looked up in amazement at the spinning ball on top of Reunion Tower will attest, the shackles of Dallas suburbia leave permanent scars, and at a certain point in his life, every kid who cursed the name finds himself singing along to “Shameless” one day while driving alone in his ’91 Chevy Cavalier; and, though he swore he’d never, grabs a copy of Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind before he’s even remotely aware of what’s happened to him.
On that note, I take my hat off to Ben Kweller. Some might consider it a career suicide perhaps, but Changing Horses is a brave and courageous album -- a pop country record by an indie darling that employed the pedal steel and good old fashioned Texas swing in hopes of finding that fine, binding thread between an adolescent angst lacing up Chuck Taylors and the euphoric sense of freedom of rolling down a dirt road in the back of a truck, wind in your hair, sun in your eyes, and a Lone Star in your hand.