On My Way – Ben Kweller

On My Way

Ben Kweller

2004

ATO Records

I wish I remembered where I first heard of Ben Kweller, it was either on Late Night with Conan or on Last.fm or, really maybe it was just a collective consciousness from reading about him and indie music.  I don’t know, I can’t remember.  I guess it doesn’t really matter (and it could be I only wish I knew so i’d have a better way to start off this review instead of just babbling on about my memory loss). 

Anyway, I at some point I had gotten into Ben Kweller.  More specifically his album On My Way.  Historically (that feels weird saying that when the album only came out a few years ago, but it is in the past so i’m able to use “historically”), Kweller and producer Ethan Johns wanted this album to be different from Kweller’s debut, Sha Sha.  They recorded the album pretty much live, the whole band playing, without headphones – instead of using the studio with numerous overdubs and effects.  And the result is that On My Way has a pretty decent sound on it.  Not great, but decent.

The opening track “I Need You Back” is the perfect song to bring one into the album.  With extremely simple drums, guitar, and bass it expresses the mood of all of On My Way (Ok, “mood” is the wrong word.  Really, the album is very coherent with the idea of simplicity), for most of the songs are very, very incomplex, sometimes painfully so.  But “I Need You Back” is a cool song – its got a really catchy melody.  And the lyrics are better than most of the others, “I’ve standed on this hex forever,” Kweller sings.  The outro also does some intertwining melodies, showing a definite talent that can come out over time.

A major dilemma on this album is that Kweller sounds so awkwardly inexperienced.  And that’s strange to say, because he’s been in playing professionally since he was thirteen, I believe.  But over the course of On My Way, Kweller’s vocals sound shaky, and they trip over his really sub-par lyrics.  However, this amateurish naivety actually works to his advantage; indeed, he never once sounds insincere (as for his horrible lyrics, that’s inexcusable).  But this is shown on the next track “Hospital Bed.”  It’s another catchy song,  with the first vocals sounding off, “La la la la la.”  The piano is the major instrument in this song, only giving way to a nice guitar riff during the chorus.  Kweller sounds completely sincere during the song, and really sounds like he’s having fun by the end of the song as it picks up the tempo.

Again, this effectual awkwardness is rampant during “My Apartment.”  It’s very similar to the previous song, in terms of lyrics and arrangement.  However, the piano is opted out for chords on a guitar instead.  It’s another very enjoyable, straightforward rock song.

This leads us to the horrendous acoustic number, “On My Way.”  Kweller has previously stated an affection for this song, but reasonably, it’s dreary.  And I don’t like that word, which shows how dreary it is.  The plot jumps disjointedly all over the place, like the ramblings of a drunken frat boy who’s discovered post-modernism.  He starts by singing about killing someone, jumps to half-creeping about stealing, then completely turns the song around – “being a good listener,” having a friend, and then falling in love.  The lyrics describing these mainly mundane offerings are even worse.  He actually utters the line, “I’ll kill him with karate that I learned in Japan.”  Luckily, this is the worst song on the album.

And it’s followed by the best song!  “The Rules” is amazingly rocking!  While it is, by no means, complex in any way, the song has a cool rhythm that Kweller uses to his advantage.  The chorus, “Show me all the rules, girl, I just wanna get ’em wrong!” is a rebellious cry (which is slightly offset by the next “I just want to belong” – but really, it’s actually showing a human character trait of wanting to be anarchistic while wanting to fit in, so I think it’s pretty cool).  The guitar solo is raw, and by the end of the song Kweller’s screeching the chorus quite passionately.  Again, the end is phrased awkwardly, but that’s the only dip in the cool factor of “The Rules.”

“Down” sets off on the mood created by “The Rules” while not completely living up to it.  The chords to the intro are big, which is nicely contrasted by bringing the verse back a step (complete with palm muting on the guitar).  The chorus is really catchy, although the lyrics reek of cliché (“When I’m in your arms, nothing can bring me down”).  Again though, Kweller sounds sincere enough to pull off the meh lyrics (yes, “meh” is my own invented word).

“Living Life” is the power-ballad off the album.  Which brings up the question, can a non-hair-metal band have a power-ballad?  If so, then this is it.  Major piano chords and rolling melody lines are really cool.  But Kweller’s vocals are boring and can be easily ignored.  Which is a shame because he’s actually trying to get across a positive message.  The only uptick is the middle-eight of the song where a pleasant harmony is introduce (also directly afterward is a well thought-out guitar solo).  So, the music is pretty, but the vocals are dim.

“Ann Distaster” and “Believer” are two alright songs, but are easily skippable.  The former is very Kinks inspired, and is enjoyable.  The latter is a boring song with bad lyrics: “Your power surrounds me.”

“Hear Me Out” continues with Kweller’s awkwardness.  It would be quite a decently arranged song if not for one major detail – harmonica.  Why is there a harmonica?  Really?  The absence of that instrument on the rest of the album makes it sound so completely out-of-place.  It’s not even used differently than harmonicas have been used before- it sounds like it came directly out of the mid-60’s.  Just… why?  Someone tell me, because I’m utterly in shock that anyone thought it would be a good idea – especially Ethan Johns!  Come on, he’s produced so many people, he must’ve known that harmonica should only be used rampantly or not at all.  Just… ok, ok.  I’m settled now.

And lastly, is “Different But the Same.”  The opening piano is beautiful, and now, Kweller’s vocals are much better.  He still sounds a little off-key in his inexperienced way, but the song is much better than “Living Life,” at least.  It follows the same pattern, but the band sounds more excited, making this a pretty good album closer.

Throughout On My Way, Ben Kweller provides for an enjoyable listen.  His songs are extremely simple for the most part, and aren’t exploring any new areas that haven’t been explored already, but many of his songs are nice.  Nice describes Kweller perfectly (which could be why the title track’s first verse fails miserably, as it doesn’t seem believable that Kweller would be able to kill anyone).  He does sound really awkward and inexperienced, but this exposes himself to becoming a potentially great artist, rather than keeping the album down because of it (Honestly, I haven’t heard either of his two LP’s after this one, so I don’t know if he’s gotten more comfortable or not.  I’ll have to find out).  With a few key tracks, On My Way shows a developing musician coming into his own.

Buy This Album

Official Site

Last.fm Page

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