Ben Kweller is Texas through and through. His new album, Changing Horses, is the epitome of the southern state, with steel guitar and heart-wrenching lyrics, none more so than in opening track Gypsy Rose with its stripped down instrumentation and whining vocals, singing about his search for salvation.
Although lacking the blues it craves, it sets the scene for an album of intimate and intriguing songs, painting pictures of rocking chairs on porches and every other ‘country’ stereotype you can think of.
Old Hat has the punch of emotion you expect in a country tale and Fight, with its chat of truckers, jolly melody, pub piano and catchy, repetitive chorus, fits Kweller’s voice perfectly.
On the down side, the songs lack the spine-tingle element. They’re fun, and they sound authentic, but it’s almost too ‘country’. It cries out for something different to the plodding percussion, slide guitar and accent-rich vocals. Saying that, the songs stand on their own and Johnny Walker and whispering Bob must be in heaven.
Comparisons made to the likes of Ryan Adams stand true, but there are also elements of Bob Dylan, early Free, a touch of Willie Nelson and ’90s Neil Young even, especially in the slick Hurtin’ You.
But the album really comes into its own when soft and subtle songs like Ballard of Wendy Baker can sit comfortably in the middle. The country stereotype is dropped for a simple guitar and some lovely strings, which really emphasise Kweller’s sweet voice and song writing talent. However, it makes you think that his ‘country-ness’ is a little too much; not so much put on, but unnecessary.
The country-ness soon returns with Sawdust Man, but it’s great. The graveliness of Kweller’s voice and the early ’70s production are reminiscent to Lennon Ono Band outtakes – relaxed and personal, while sounding a whole lot of fun.
What becomes evident at half way through is that Changing Horses is an album full of sing-alongs. Could it be trying to cash in on that massive US country industry rather than keeping Kweller as a relative unknown, yet talented, musician? Maybe, but it still makes way for great songs like Things I Like To Do – as simple as it suggests, but very easy to listen to and only two minutes long!
It’s gems like Things I like To Do and Ballard of Wendy Baker that will make this album a success among the more alternative listeners, while the commercial Fight, and especially On Her Own, surely a Dixie Chicks favourite, will appeal to a different audience, not only because of its melody and lyrics, but because it seems to have been produced to target a completely different audience.