Ben Kweller: Sha Sha

Ben Kweller
Sha Sha
ATO Records

The suggestion that youth is wasted on the young reveals the mixture of regret and longing we bring to viewing our headlong rush into adulthood. Watching the banality of prefab teens hawking soft drinks, we forget our own young, awkward ambitions to be taken seriously. But for mop-topped singer Ben Kweller, that treacherous transition into later life inspires hope and exuberance that tastes as fresh as your very first kiss. Something of a prodigy, Kweller took honorable mention in a Billboard songwriting contest at the age of ten. By 15, his high school band, Radish, had signed to Mercury and were touring the world and appearing on Conan and Letterman. With his warm, inviting voice and penchant for catchy power-pop hooks, Kweller recalls the equally polished-beyond-his-years Ben Lee. He also evokes Evan Dando, who not surprisingly championed Kweller.

On Sha Sha, the young songwriter graduates from the solo acoustic guitar and piano of his debut, Freak Out, It's Ben Kweller, to a full backing band. The latest album offers an infectious blend of pop-rock that lands somewhere between the Lemonheads' bittersweet romanticism and the Replacements' ragged glory. While the accompanying musicians help flesh out the compositions, Kweller is often at his best when the instruments let his vulnerable vocals rise to the fore. On the piano track "Falling," for instance, the violin, viola, and cello seem extravagant. But elsewhere--as on the slacker anthem, "Commerce, TX," one of the album's highlights--the rich backing bop-bops and doo-doo-doos highlight Kweller's fine harmonies.

From the country-tinged "Family Tree," to the melancholy, Billy Joel-ish "In Other Words," Kweller exhibits surprising versatility and ease, which plays nicely off his coy insouciance. He's no great philosopher, but plenty of people live perfectly fulfilling lives without reading Sartre. And maybe what this world needs now is a little folksy reminder of what it's like to be young and earnest.

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