You don’t have to be all that old to think of Ben Kweller, still, as a kid with a satchel full of catchy power-pop melodies who is busting on the scene. But that was 2002 when the debut disc by a 20-year-old was coming out and giving you the Beatle-esque glow in your belly that only a great chorus and a harmonically fresh pop hook can provide. I still get a big smile when any track from Sha Sha comes up on my playlist.
Ten years on and Ben Kweller is a whole lot of adult. He’s living in Austin, TX, not far from where he grew up playing the drums on Lennon/McCartney tunes with his dad—a place where a well-crafted song and a good band still matter. But any notion that Kweller is going to be a rock star seems past. The radio rattles these days with bloopy neo-hip-hop songs, and more than enough magazine articles have pronounced rock to be an art-house genre like jazz or blues. A new rock album in the Rubber Soul or My Aim Is True mode is the farthest thing from a cultural sensation.
But Kweller seems not to care about these matters of musical fashion, and for that we can celebrate. For his latest—and fifth—album, Go Fly a Kite, it seems fair to wonder if using such an antiquated idiom for the title indicates that Kweller knows how out of step he is with Today’s Hit Music. It’s full of harmonized vocals, tricky pop arrangements, and slightly sad lyrics that embody a yearning for a past just slightly in the rearview mirror. It’s wonderful, and it seems a shame that too few young people will ever hear it.
Just follow your ears into the loping piano pop of “Gossip”, which is both intensely appealing and a little tricky, with a stuttering dropped beat on the verses, then a bridge section that turns the tune into a chunk of orchestral pop. As in so many Kweller songs, you get a bit of “Ooooh-weee-ooo-ooh” in the background, a big descending guitar line, a sudden swell of organ at just the right moment, even touches of falsetto and a fully broken-down, vocals-only ending. Yummy.
You like a guitar-driven anthem? Got it for you here in “Free”, built on an early-‘70s guitar pattern that might have driven an Eagles tune, complete with a bent-note solo that moves into a single harmonized line. The lyric “Everybody wants the last word / ‘Cause they can’t tell when it’s through / Desperately delivered to you / We’ve got too many people standing still like nothin’s wrong / We all came to throw away the hassle / But the line’s too long” gets a little Steve Miller Band vocal harmony before the chorus line “Be sure that you want to be free!”
The dilemma, obviously, is that Kweller can sound a bit too much like his classic rock influences. In some cases, such as the “n-n-no-no-no” part of “Out the Door” (which flatly evokes the Monkees), the influences are both too clear and not entirely flattering. In the case of “Jealous Girl”, the influence sounds like a whole lot of Springsteen (via Roy Orbison), from the big beat sound of the Max Weinberg drums to the chugging guitar attack to the first person-plural lyric (“We can make that claim / And dry those tears”).
But plenty of the music, derived though it is from the pop past, sounds direct and fresh, if only because Kweller knows a good hook and a strong melody when it crosses his mind’s ear. The opener, “Mean to Me”, is a rocker with a juicy guitar solo for sure, but the chorus is broken down to a quiet guitar and vocal harmonies, which in turn explodes into full-band, maximum volume on the same music, eventually adding horn blasts. It’s maximum fun, too, with no single obvious referent. In contrast, the folkie strain of Kweller’s art comes through on “Full Circle”, which gets an I-V country music bass line, a pocket-rich train beat on the drums, and even a trace of hillbilly harmonica in the rhythm arrangement.
For the most part, Kweller’s lyrical interests are tame or sentimental. Songs like “The Rainbow”, “Time Will Save the Day” and “You Can Count on Me” don’t contain much bile or surprise, but you can count on lyrics that contain the little twists and turns of a writer who is interested in painting a picture for the listener. “I Miss You” may be the most obvious song title in pop history, but the line about “another painted concrete runway, as another show takes me to the sky” makes being on the road as a musician sound lonely and fresh. The dobro accompaniment is probably the better touch, but the lyrics on these songs are good enough to justify the listen.
Kweller’s singing has never been the point. His voice is pleasantly thin and everyman-ish. It’s not snarky like Donald Fagen’s (Steely Dan) or Chris Collingwood’s (Fountains of Wayne), even though it shares those singers’ ability to seem like a quirky storyteller. And it’s not theatrical like many rock acts nor Gleeishly clean. It’s just a pleasing slacker voice that knows how to harmonize like a folk singer—and by never seeming to try too hard, Kweller comes off as just right.
It seems, in fact, just right that Go Fly a Kite ends with “You Can Count on Me”. “It’s a sad day ‘cause all my old friends have changed / I just want you to know that I’m still the same”, Kweller sings. And that’s true indeed. Ten years into a solo career and even longer in the pop business, generally, Kweller is a reliable, solid quantity. If that seems to suggest that Go Fly a Kite is somehow mediocre or forgettable, then maybe you hear more intricate, solidly crafted pop-rock than I do every week. This record is rich in craft—from songwriting to intricate arrangement to whatever the spirit is that lifts certain music into inspiration. On the one hand, that’s a rare thing in an era of Let’s-Party-At-The-Club Electro-Bloop Pop. On the other, it’s what you can generally expect from the redoubtable Ben Kweller.