Brooklyn’s own Ben Kweller is a veteran of the music industry at the ripe old age of 22. After surviving the post-grunge rise and fall of former band Radish while still in his teens, Kweller emerged in 2002 to release his first solo project on his own terms.
Now in his follow-up to the tremendous success of Sha-Sha, Kweller has assembled a tight band to present hard proof of his further development as a songwriter. There’s not a bad song on his new release and the more you listen, the more you’ll like it.
On My Way may prove less commercial than its predecessor, presenting its collection of songs in a raw, unadorned way, mixed somewhat closer to the feel of live performance. The talented Kweller still covers a wide realm of musical styles, and goes from quiet to loud and from piano to guitar effortlessly.
Utilizing the production talents of Ethan Johns (son of famed producer/engineer Glyn Johns, and referred by friends Kings of Leon), Kweller wanted a more direct sound based on old-fashioned rock-and-roll recording techniques. So in October 2003, Kweller and his band began recording at Sear Sound, known for its vintage microphones and retro vacuum-tube technology. This supporting ensemble was Josh Lattanzi (bass), Mike Stroud (guitar), and Fred Eltringham (drums). The band set out to record in a single room, playing together—no separation of tracks and no headphones.
The album was recorded in three weeks with very little rehearsal, a testament to the tightness of a band coming off two years of almost constant touring. Most of the songs were played three times each—with the best take kept for the record. The guitars were hard-panned, Stroud’s in the left stereo channel, Kweller’s in the right. That’s about as sophisticated as it got. Vocals were done with little or no overdubbing—most songs recorded as continuous vocal takes. As such, Kweller’s voice, while not the strongest, comes across as endearing and emotive and real—cracks and all—its charms on full display throughout.
While recording, Eltringham moved to California to start a family, so John Kent was brought in to do the drums. After the recordings were done, Stroud left to start his own band (Ratatat). In spite of all these changes, the 11 tracks that comprise On My Way manage to capture the tightness and friendship of the band as well as the intimate sound Kweller was after.
The infectious, guitar-driven “I Need You Back” is a plaintive cry from a soul who is lost without his dear friend: “I need you back / I need you here / To take away all of my pain and then my fear / Hey! I need you back.”
The playful “Hospital Bed” would have fit well onto the first solo album. This piano-based pop tune trades in la-la-las, interesting structure, arcane lyrics and a great power guitar chorus. Kweller ties it all together and makes it stand out as a great track.
“My Apartment” explains New York City life to outsiders, a love letter to living inside ridiculously small spaces: “My apartment, the home where I hide / Away from all the darkness outside / I’m there all the time.” This is another pleasant, catchy tune, with subtle musical accents sure to beguile you.
Kweller turns folk balladeer on the title track. With acoustic guitar and vocals, he tells this tale of self-discovery, as he finds himself capable of murder, stealing, listening, friendship, and ultimately love. It’s sweet, simple, and endearing.
Those seeking harder edges (or a tune to dance to) will enjoy the fun, rocking “The Rules”. Here “angry young man” Kweller wants to be shown the rules so that he can get them wrong, and Stroud plays a fine lead. The other rougher-hewn song is “Ann Disaster” where again, the guitars are on display and Kweller taunts us: “I know what you want, you want a piece of me!”
“Down” builds slowly, no doubt an ode to Kweller’s new wife: “When I’m in your arms nothing can bring me down”. Similarly, the melodic straight-ahead piano anthem “Living Life” is quite lovely, a combination of life advice and love ode: “Go away with a smile / Don’t forget about your past / Don’t keep yourself from giving / I am always watching you be yourself and stayin’ true / ‘Cause it makes me feel like life’s worth living.”
Just as pretty (and again, most likely an homage to his wife) is the softly winning “Believer”. This is an out-and-out love song, which might seem too much if you don’t believe his sincerity: “When you’re hurt you heal others / When you’re in need, you give / Because of you I am living the most that I can live / Oh sweet darling girl / I’m so glad that you found me / Oh, sweet darling girl / Your power surrounds me.”
Kweller returns to more obscure lyrics and breaks out the harmonica for “Hear Me Out”. This song is a perfect example of how tightly the band plays together, going from soft to loud to soft again (a common Kweller technique).
The album ends with “Different But the Same,” a complex song full of wonderful transitions. This is Kweller at his best on piano, imparting important life lessons to us all: “You gotta be so strong, you gotta teach your son / How to stand up straight when you want to run / How to care and love, how to be yourself / To be different but the same.”
I can’t really say enough about the songwriting talents of Kweller. He goes from soft ballad to garage rock and manages to make each effort captivating and believable. And while his oft-wavering voice might be an acquired taste, the music (even when presented directly and in a somewhat subdued manner) is strong, the band tight.
Kweller is growing as a songwriter and expanding his talents—this solid collection shows that more than ever. On My Way is an apt title for an album that shows how this grizzled veteran of the music industry wars, still in his 20s, is well on his way to ever-greater things.
// Notes from the Road
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