"Sha Sha"


Derivative is in.  From the White Stripes to the Hives to the Strokes to the
Donnas, the new wave of rock and pop is one that wears its influences heavily
on its collective sleeve.  While many accuse some derivative artists of musical thievery, it's important to remember that all music is derivative in some way or another.  Kurt Cobain once drily made an astute comment that rock was just one big recycling machine...and ten years later, we're seeing the evidence of that once again.  But there's a difference between artists who merely rehash past glories of other artists and artists who have all the right influences but are still finding their own voice.

While teeny fodder like Good Charlotte, Sum 41 and Avril Lavigne come off as just shameless ripoffs, some of the batch of young new artists come off as refreshingly retro and filled with heart instead of annoyingly unoriginal and plasticine.  One such artist is Texas' Ben Kweller, a 20 year old phenom (and I shudder to use the term "phenom," knowing full well the same term was applied to the likes of Hanson, even though it seems to be absolutely true in Kweller's case) who got his start in his early teens with a Texas band called Radish.

I first heard of Kweller when he followed Spoon on the KCET program "Austin
City Limits," the show that has thrived for more than 25 years and has proven to be a great showcase for artists, both famous and up and coming.  Ben's set on
"Austin City Limits" opened up with a tune that also opens up his debut solo
album, the They Might Be Giants-y "How It Should Be (Sha Sha)."  With its
clunky piano line, 5/4 time signature, Brian Wilson-like chorus and random lyrics about asteroids, astronauts and "Planet of the Apes," I knew immediately this
was going to be an artist I could get into.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album isn't quite as quirky as that opener, though
the vibe is still highly enjoyable and very much in the vein of "geek rock" (a
genre very near and dear to my heart).  Track 2 (ironically also the second song Ben played on "Austin City Limits"), "Wasted And Ready," nearly made me fall out of my chair with its indellible melody, cranked up dirty guitars and undeniably Weezer-like chorus.  Moreover, Ben has Rivers Cuomo's shouting voice down to a tee, which makes for some startlingly eerie moments.  (You know you're getting old when artists start emulating bands that were popular when you were in high school...for those playing along at home, that'd be the years '91-'95 for me).

"Wasted..." is one of four or five overtly Weezer-esque moments on the album.
Thankfully for us all, Kweller sounds much closer to the pre-lobotomy Rivers
Cuomo--exemplified on Weezer's first two records--rather than the
"nice enough but not earth-shattering" by-the-numbers pop star post-2001
Rivers.  (I'll take Kweller's interesting "sex reminds her of eating spaghetti" over
Cuomo's downright lamebrained "cheese smells so good on a burnt piece of
lamb" any day.) Kweller's "Harriet's Got A Song" even recalls Weezer's glorious
"Pinkerton" days with its mellow pace, squealing guitars, chorus xylophone,
disaffected vocals, and opening salvo of "I don't stand a chance in this fucked
up world."  Kweller throws a spanner in the works for the second half of
the song, kicking the tempo into overdrive.

The second most obvious reference point on the album is Ben Folds, though the references are more oblique.  The Folds vibe is most apparent in the haunting
piano ballad "In Other Words," but even this song has Kweller's own unique stamp on it, as he repeats the phrase "it starts stopping when it stops stopping" in the middle, ad nauseum, and increases the tempo at the end of the tune to lead the song into a triumphant, haunting finale in which a banjo plays a prominent role (which actually works to great effect and must be heard to be believed). There are also traces of Folds in the exquisite closer "Falling," which, like "...Words," also features a string quartet.

The rest of the album is harder to nail down, darting around in acoustic alt-pop
territory like Matthew Sweet, Elliot Smith and the Lemonheads.  There's even a
bit of a nod to 1964-era Beatles (replete with thudding piano octaves in the
chorus) on the marvelous "Walk On Me," which is quite simply pop craftmanship at its finest.  It's in this song's chorus that Ben also shows his penchant for
turning a lyric nicely on its ear: "If I was in your shoes, I wouldn't walk all over
you, so please don't walk all over me."

Lest I come off as labelling Kweller as just some obsessively derivative '90s alt-pop clone (who wasn't even in Kindergarten when "Nevermind" hit), the point should be made that Kweller's got not only a boatload of talent (Ben plays every instrument on this album, bar bass and drums) but also a budding lyrical propensity that, while unpolished, is quite refreshing.  In "Family Tree," Ben intones "long walks on the beach, the press will impeach, lately I'm finding I am the book and you are the binding."  In "Walk On Me," Ben soldifies his geek cred with lines like "love is supposed to be this bad, make you cry, mega-ultra sad."  And some of Ben's lyrics are downright poetic, such as the chorus of "In Other Words": "butterflies are passive aggressive and put their problems on the shelf, but they're beautiful/and he'll realize that the only thing that's real are the kids who kid themselves, and the demise of the beautiful/what is beautiful?"  Perhaps the best thing about Ben's lyrics is that they come off even better when sung, which is a mighty difficult thing to pull off.

And of course there is Kweller's voice which, in addition to hearkening the
aforementioned Rivers Cuomo, has a shy, unassuming, unpolished quality to it
that for some reason reminds me of a young Todd Rundgren (another one-time
boy genius pop tunesmith).  Kweller's voice adds a charmingly naive quality to
most of these songs, and I imagine in a few years Ben's voice will take on even
more of a life of its own.

Yes, young Ben Kweller might sound quite derivative, but on the other hand, we should all take a deep breath and admit right off the bat that Ben Folds didn't single handedly invent the singer/songwriter piano tune, just as Weezer didn't invent melodic rock.  In this reviewer's humble opinion, Kweller's got all the right
influences, as well as a bevy of his own creative ideas...not to mention raw talent.  In short, Ben's definitely one to the risk of sounded cliched,
this guy is going to go places.

So Ben doesn't quite reinvent the wheel on "Sha Sha," but if the choice is
between Ben Kweller and Good "We Wish We Were Green Day" Charlotte, Sum
"Limp 182" 41 or Avril "Alanis Wannabe" Lavigne, I'll take Ben by a country mile.  At least this kid's got a soul.  And don't get me started on present day Rivers Cuomo...

Rating: B+

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