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Gentle Ben

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Gentle Ben

By Gilbert Garcia

If you define great songwriting as the ability to convey things that most people feel but are too embarrassed to say, Ben Kweller qualifies as a great songwriter. The 22-year-old Texas native has a highly developed sense of pop craftsmanship, but what really makes his songs stick to your cardiovascular system is the wide-eyed youthful ebullience he brings to the most commonplace observations.

It's a trait that can't be faked. Coming from another artist, a line like "I am the book and you are the binding" (from the 2002 song "Family Tree") would risk hazardous levels of radioactive cutesiness. But Kweller is an anomaly: a sensitive singer-songwriter who also possesses the hellbent spirit of a punk rocker.

With his 2002 breakthrough CD, Sha Sha, Kweller found the perfect balance between goofball piano pop ("How It Should Be"), slacker rock ("Commerce, TX"), and open-hearted acoustic balladry ("Lizzy"). His new release, On My Way, finds BK more assured but no less earnest. It's hard to think of another young songwriter who would pen a loving ode to his apartment ("the home where I hide/away from all the darkness outside"), but Kweller is so fun-loving and loose that his sincerity never feels like a drag.

CD Spotlight

On My Way

Ben Kweller

(ATO/RCA)
Recorded in only three weeks by Ethan Johns (son of famed producer/engineer Glyn Johns), this album captures Kweller's band in raucous form, ideal for raveups like "Ann Disaster," "The Rules," and "I Need You Back." For the title song, Kweller turns down the volume and offers his strangest and most moving piece of philosophizing. A treatise on the way we're all moving in many contradictory directions at the same time, the song begins with Kweller's serio-comic desire to commit murder ("I'll kill him with karate that I learned in Japan") and ends with an unabashed declaration of love: "She makes hats with her hands/she is such an artist/I'm her biggest fan and I'm teaching her to sing."

At moments like that, Kweller - better than any troubadour since Jonathan Richman - celebrates the wonder of life's simplest pleasures and temporarily makes you feel guilty for ever harboring a cynical thought. •

By Gilbert Garcia


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