Sha Sha

Ben Kweller

ATO Records, 2002

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


You just never know, y'know?

Here I was, thinking I'd give Ben Kweller a try and then sit down and write a fresh entry for the pantheon of Glowing Reviews By Star-Struck Critics of the Young Prodigy Himself. Raised in a musical family, Kweller was solid on piano and guitar at an early age, in a band at 12 (Radish) and had logged musical appearances on Conan O'Brien and Letterman before his 17th birthday. The critics all but drooled on the guy.

But when I stuck his 2002 solo debut Sha Sha in the player and sat back, a funny thing happened -- a really funny thing for someone who's lauded the innocent genius of any number of young-and-sincere singer-songwriter-savant types. I hated it. Really, viscerally "yousucksucksuck" despised it.

Notes from my first listen: "calculated sloppiness… not even trying to hit the notes with his tone-deaf singing... self-conscious composing geared for shock value... Zappaesque in places but not half as funny…" Then I reached "In Other Words" and noted "Ahh, here's the good stuff, a quality, thoughtful, melodic ballad free of affectations… before he f*cks it up with that ridiculous, accelerated close. Why??" Next-to-final thoughts: "if the jarring transitions were more organic, they might be interesting -- instead they feel pretentious and manipulative." And then, regarding closer "Falling": "the best track on the disc, a pretty piano tune with no sonic graffiti added to screw it up. It's about damn time."my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Yeah, those expectations can be murder. Need proof? Notes from my second listen to that overrated, pretentious spaz Ben Kweller, a full two weeks later:

"A brilliant pop alchemist. Charming, vulnerable, fearless, a great sense of melody, totally uninhibited. 'Sex reminds her of eating spaghetti'… LOL. 'Wasted and Ready' matches French horn and power chords like an exotic cocktail served in a storefront dive. The closing jam on 'In Other Words' is a jarring, cathartic emotional release of surprising power."

Yeah, it's starting to feel like that whole " I feel strongly both ways" thing all over again. Must be something in the water this month. In any case...

Kweller is as adept at rocking out on cuts like the rollicking "Commerce, TX" and "Harriet's Got A Song" as he is at tugging on your heartstrings with earnest ballads. The place he sometimes stumbles is in his insistence on keeping things raw at all times. The lack of polish is part of what makes uptempo cuts like "Walk On Me" and "Make It Up" fun -- they sound like the giddy, sloppy early takes from a teenager's basement studio. But the lyrics veer between clever and dopey, and the off-pitch singing on tracks like "No Reason" crosses the line between endearing and annoying.

Just as young Ben's act is starting to wear thin, though, there's the big finish, that lost Ben Folds number "Falling." Gorgeous, brilliant, wonderful, insert your own favorite exclamation of musical joy here. Yeah, dammit, he is good, even if it's sometimes in spite of himself. Bottom line, I didn't make the Star-Struck Critics' Hall of Fame, but I did get to know Ben Kweller a little -- and that's a worthwhile endeavor.

Rating: B-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2004 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of ATO Records, and is used for informational purposes only.