It seems like Ben Kweller has grown up. He has already had a lifetime of music industry experience, from two well-received, self-released solo efforts to opening gigs for the likes of Evan Dando, Jeff Tweedy, Eels, and Juliana Hatfield, not to mention lunch with Madonna. Add to this the saga of his band Radish, which won a major-label bidding war, released an album, scored a top 40 hit in the UK, and then quickly disbanded and faded into the dollar bins. All this, and the lad is just 20, hardly an age to be fully rid of acne, much less the sting of a merciless, stifling industry. But it seems like all the teenage toiling has paid off, at least to a degree. The result of years of honing and playing and songwriting is Sha Sha, which combines new songs and new versions of tunes from his self-released first CD, Freak Out, It’s Ben Kweller.
All things considered, the maturity is a mixed blessing. What made Freak Out such a refreshing bit of acoustic pop majesty was its irreverent feel, sloppy like a first kiss but still rewarding and lasting. The songs were wistful bits of pop at its best, endlessly hummable and joyous, void of pretentiousness but with stocked with hearty, playful angst. Some of those songs, like the painfully infectious “How It Should Be (sha sha)” and “Walk on Me” are reproduced here, but with less engaging results. Which isnt to say they fail—rather, they are weighed down a bit by the fuller arrangements, which add a layer of clunky slickness and sheen that was really unnecessary. The charm of both Kweller and his songs lies in their vulnerability, which is covered up here with drums and mildly abrasive guitar chords, rather than sitting in plain view on chirping and squeaking acoustic guitar strings. This isn’t the old standard argument that crops up when a beloved indie act gets a label deal and loses the luster—it’s just the songs grew because of their simplicity, warmth emanating from their skeletal constructs. It’s not that the re-workings and other new tunes on Sha Sha suffer from overwhelming studio sheen, it’s just that they’ve lost their innocence.
Much like our growing friend Ben. Although he is still the same quirky songwriter with stunning talents and an ear for pop almost unparalleled for someone his age, he now seems to have filtered his muse through Rivers Cuomo, as most of the songs here display a jagged Weezer edge, with crunchy power chords that will turn high school band geeks into Jager-drinking studs. “Wasted and Ready” and “Harriet’s Got a Song” mercilessly drive this fact home, with lyrics about drunken sex and frustration. In truth, the end result is Kweller’s marketability shifting from a 20-something indie kid’s favorite underdog to the tape deck of a high schooler who delivers pizza and swipes weed from his older sister.
To say that it’s a bad thing is missing the point and denying the incredible songcraft here, because despite the slight shift towards the often unforgivable land of “different”, Kweller writes epidemically catchy songs and has a ridiculous gift for melody. One listen to “Falling” or “Family Tree” should cement that fact. At worst, Sha Sha is a slight misstep into already charted and saturated power-pop waters. But the music is no less appealing, and there isnt much of a clunker along the album’s 11-song path. At its best, it’s a sign that Kweller will continually evolve, spewing his pop wizardry through different, more alluring cycles. Maybe that’s just how it should be.