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Music Review: Ben Kweller – Changing Horses

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Written by Fantasma el Rey

Ben Kweller’s latest solo album entitled Changing Horses is just that, a change from his indie-rock persuasions to full-blow outlaw country rock. In his past projects Kweller has touched upon his Texas outlaw roots but here he embraces it head-on and does a good job with his country excursion. Kweller, who in the past has been known to play all the instruments on his CDs has brought in a fine cast of musicians to back him up and make this album a fresh and compelling masterwork.

Previously, Kweller fell in the class of indie rock on the same level as Weezer on his more rocking tunes and Bright Eyes on his sappier sides. Being so young, just a teen when he started, and brilliant is what set him apart, making him stand a bit taller among his peers. Now in his mid-twenties this is the record he needed to make as his stories are told in the honky-tonk hardwood-floor manner that a kid of nineteen, 99 percent of the time can’t pull off. But as Gram Parsons did with his country-rock masterpieces G.P. and Grievous Angel, Kweller is at an age where you can believe his stories as he has had time to live, know, love and lose.

Changing Horses is a good mixture of country kickers that rollick and roll with all the flair of classic country rock. Raucous romps like “Fight,” “Sawdust Man,” “Wanting Her Again,” “Things I Like To Do,” and “On Her Own” play up the thick bass thump (Chris Morrissey), steady drum shuffle (Mark Stepo), well-paced pedal steel and dobro wail(the very impressive Kitt Kitterman), along with twangy guitar and saloon-style piano(both supplied by Kweller) thrown in for flavor. “Fight” displays Kweller’s wonderful lyrical workings with lines such as “I’m like my Grandma/ short but I stand tall/ playing every single card that’s dealt to me” and “some days are aces/ some days are faces /well, some days are twos and threes.” While “Sawdust Man” finds him walking down a Beatles-inspired road leading toward a greyhound station with its pumping, playful, pounding piano and vocal harmony.

Kweller’s slow tunes “Old Hat,” “Ballad Of Wendy Baker,” and “Homeward Bound” are quiet, reflective, tear-in-your-beer songs with sad lyrics of old, missing love and life’s wrong turns. His plaintive voice weaves in, out, and around his band perfectly as they follow his hushed lead and bring out the sorrow in his vocals, which never go over the top or off the edge as he gently sings his pain. “Old Hat” is the standout track that showcases perfectly the band’s quality and Kweller’s lyric/vocal mastery as he states softly that he “never wants to be the old hat that you put on your pretty head.” Lyrics as simple as that catch you, pull you in, and remind you of the time that you played Winnie-The-Pooh to someone’s Christopher Robin.

Simple yet effective is what keeps Ben Kweller’s Changing Horses above other modern country-rock outlaws and wannabes who think they have to use graphic lyrics of white trash life or out-of-place expletives to highlight a brilliant point they think they’re making in their “look, how brainy and smart I am” fashion. You can hear Kweller’s influences (Parsons, Bob Dylan, Elliot Smith, etc.), but he manages to steer clear of overt imitation, which always makes a mockery of any attempt to be serious or sincere. Certain truckers and a “con” come to mind in that sense of their talk of low lights and journeys down faux dusty roads. Kweller even went so far as to put out the album on vinyl and included a full-size pullout poster (available on the CD release as well) of the album cover with complete lyrics printed nicely on the back. A modern masterpiece cut from a classic mold.

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