It’s generally accepted that one would be ill-advised to change horses in midstream, whether it’s for fear of slowing the crossing or losing the rider. In the case of Ben Kweller’s swapping steeds on his latest release, it’s clear that he is in absolutely no danger of drowning.
Kweller explains Changing Horses by saying “After the Beatles and before Nirvana, country music was the soundtrack of my life, the music that shaped who I am… this album focuses in on that one side of me.” And while it does wear the requisite Austin outlaw country accoutrements—the entire album is awash in shimmering pedal steel, for instance—it’s less about musical styles than it is about making stories come to life. Kweller has always had a knack for creating effortless melodies and perfect hooks, and even in country mode, he manages to conjure that charmingly off the cuff exuberance evocative of earlier masters of song craft, such as Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and, of course, the Beatles. Only this time out, those qualities are filtered through sounds reminiscent of people like Gram Parsons, and distilled into something that is still entirely Ben Kweller.
Because of a release date delay, a few of the songs here were also featured on an interim recording called How Ya Lookin’ Southbound? Come In…, which was available on Kweller’s tour last fall and from his official website. That disc gave a glimmer of the direction the music would be heading, and even provided examples of the evolution of specific songs with its “Sawdust Baby” and “F Train Blues/ Gypsy Rosita”. On Changing Horses, though, those tracks seem to find a more coherent flow. There’s a slow and steady progression as Kweller carves his own brand of country from the rock and pop of his past.
From the plaintive strains of “Gypsy Rose” and “Old Hat,” both of which call to mind Let It Bleed- era Stones songs such as “You Got the Silver” and “Love in Vain”, to the truck stop stomp of “Fight” and the roadhouse rambling of “Sawdust Man”, Kweller keeps his rig rolling by constantly switching things up. Even so, he never strays too far from his lyrical home of love songs and witty wordplay:
“I’m like my grandma
Short, but I stand tall
Playing every single card that’s dealt to me
Well, some days are aces
And some days are faces
Some days are twos and threes!”
In addition to highlighting his talent at turning a phrase, older songs like “Hurtin’ You”, with its lush, close harmony backing vocals, and newer tracks like “Wantin’ Her Again”, a lonesome cowboy ditty, showcase some of Kweller’s strongest vocal performances to date. “Things I Like to Do” is a clever and sweetly simple celebration of life’s little pleasures as he sees them:
“I don’t know what to do
But I know what I like to do
I like talking in the diner
‘Stead of screaming in a noisy bar
I like walking into public places
Strumming this guitar.”
“On Her Own” has a sunny California, Chris Hillman, country-rock vibe, and is arguably the catchiest, most radio-friendly track on Changing Horses. Then suddenly, another switch occurs, and the album ends with the heartbreaking “Homeward Bound”. Written by Jemima James and Michael Mason in the 1960s, but never before recorded, it’s a gorgeously gospel-inflected coda. “He’s a lonesome river-swimmer / Wondering where the river went,” laments Kweller over a waltzing shuffle amidst warm, welcoming harmonies that wonder, “Who’s gonna carry him down / Who’s gonna carry him, carry him down / One more turn-around and he’ll be homeward bound / Who’s gonna carry him, carry him down.”
In Changing Horses Kweller has slipped seamlessly into another stream of songwriting tradition, and all signs say it suits him. If for some reason, however, he finds it’s not a fit, he can always double back. After all, it’s not exactly as if he’s covered his tracks. And should he simply decide to step out of the river again somewhere around the bend, it’s a sure bet he’ll have no trouble finding a new trail to follow.