February 8, 2012

Test Spins: Ben Kweller

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You know those songs that can’t fail to get your foot tapping and put a smile on your face? Those songs that stay in your head for years, just puttering around in the back of your brain? Enter Ben Kweller’s self-titled album. The 2006 LP is chock-full of sweet and adorkable tracks, which piqued my interest and eventual approval of Kweller. This San Francisco native started out playing with the band Radish, releasing his first solo album in 2002. As a solo artist, he produced a cutesy country-indie hybrid that never fails to put the listener in a good mood. Maybe the songs contained not the most meaningful or original lyrics, but they were catchy and fun nonetheless. Naturally when his newest album, Go Fly A Kite, was announced, I awaited its arrival with excitement. Alas, upon my first listen, I soon realized I had set myself up for disappointment. The album proves mediocre, repetitive and utterly forgettable. Go Fly A Kite definitely fails to float my boat.

Go Fly A Kite represents a significant departure from Kweller’s old style. The songs are louder, grittier and they integrate more instruments traditionally associated with rock ‘n’ roll. That means a lot of metallic sounding electric guitars and some very aggressive percussion. In this way, the album is overly ambitious; he combines far too many instruments, creating sounds that sometimes evoke the earsplitting din of a teenage garage band. Not all of the tracks have a garage rock vibe, but the ones that do detract from the album as a whole. The gritty quality is not dramatic enough to please fans of the harder stuff, but is just enough of a change to disenchant his fans.

The album has a number of mediocre, forgettable tracks. Interestingly enough, one of the worst songs opens the album. “Mean to Me” sets the tone for the disappointing show, immediately assaulting your ears with a loud guitar part that is far from pretty. From there, the vocals drone rather unpleasantly throughout the song. At the conclusion of each line the melody dips in an unsatisfying way, weakening the song as a whole. While the chorus has no real lyrical originality — repeating “you don’t know what you mean to me” isn’t exactly the pinnacle of creativity — the lone guitar strumming behind the words is a nice touch. The song gets a little better with a key change and the integration of horns, but the improvement is marginal at best.

Other tracks also reek of creative laziness. On “Out the Door”, the vocals have a bizarre staccato quality that makes them virtually impossible to understand. That’s alright though; upon closer observation, they are not worth understanding anyway. However, the upbeat chorus has a snazzy guitar riff that improves the overall feel of the song. “Gossip” is another boring addition. The chord progression is commonplace, though not offensive. It elicits a down-in-the-dumps feeling, but not in the passionate way the blues does. It is more of a cranky, annoyed sensation. “Justify Me” is another repetitive and unnecessary track to add to the others. Its musical interludes overwhelm the song, and there is no cohesive theme unless you count the repetition of the phrase “it’s so hard” a seemingly never-ending amount of times. “Time Will Save the Day” might be the worst of them all. The overall sound can only be described as annoying; in the middle of the song, the crescendo of banging and yelling almost makes the song unlistenable. All of these songs are severely mediocre if not irritating.

While these tracks fall flat, a few experimental risks pay off for Kweller. Many of the songs have gospel-influenced choir parts in them, a unique touch that gives the album a bit of flair. “I Miss You” is the best example of a song that includes this soulful addition. Nevertheless, it is not a fantastic song. The percussion is far too aggressive and loud for such a slow-tempo ballad, but the choir parts are definitely the most interesting part of the song. “Full Circle” also uses the gospel influence, and is more reminiscent of the older, catchier style with a pleasant piano part.

What works on this album seems to be what we already knew Kweller was capable of, not the new experimental things he tries. “You Can Count On Me” and “Jealous Girl” are the two best tracks on the album because they hark back to Kweller’s early work: they’re catchy, piano driven and upbeat. While they do lack lyrical substance, they will have you happily boppin’ along in no time. This album has a rushed air about it; it is almost as if he had remembered that it was due the night before and thought that very loud drums and guitar would cover a lack of preparation. Go Fly A Kite simply does not work. My advice to Kweller: stick with what you know. Next time I need a pick-me-up, I’ll rustle up a box of kittens, because this record will not do it for me.

Original Author: Sarah Finegold