Ben Kweller is Awesome

Do you know who Ben Kweller is? I hope so. If you don’t here’s a brief history taken from what I could find online and my own memories. Ben Kweller is a genre-spanning musician who grew up in Greenville, Texas, which is about 50 miles east of Dallas (and about 35 miles east of my hometown, Rockwall, Texas). He has been making music since before he could legally drive a car, and that music could fairly be categorized as a combination of punk, pop, folk, rock, and country. His distinct voice, large stage presence, and pioneering efforts to release music in nontraditional ways has made him a personal favorite of mine and someone who I believe deserves more widespread attention. This is my personal take on a dude to whom more people should listen.

My introduction to Ben Kweller came from my good friend Stephen, who burned me a copy of the 2002 edition of BK’s album Sha Sha. I was in seventh grade and up to that point had pretty much been going back and forth between the classic rock and Nashville country my mom listened to and the “outlaw” country my dad listened to. Stephen unknowingly set me on a course of musical discovery that continues almost twenty years later. The album struck me because the guy sounded young, the music sounded raw, and the lyrics had that beautiful combination of angst and poetry that I think most people ages 13 to 18 actually crave. The fact that there was a song called “Commerce, TX” (a town not far from Greenville) and another song (“Falling”) that mentioned seeing the neon green of the Bank of America building in Dallas also pulled me in. I had never heard much music that dealt with this part of Texas that wasn’t a hokey country tune. I was hooked.

In those days everyone had Napster or Kazaa or Limewire or one of any number of computer programs that enabled people to download music in exchange for giving your computer enough viruses to keep Geek Squad busy for an eternity. In my mind it seemed like a fair exchange: I could download all the music I wanted, and all it cost was my parents not being able to access any other part of the computer. We were initially a Napster family, but when Metallica shut that down we moved to Kazaa and over the course of two years I downloaded something like 5,000 songs, some of which weren’t even corrupted!

But I digress. I had Kazaa and after Stephen gave me that copy of Sha Sha I downloaded everything Ben Kweller-related I could. I found out he had been in a band called Radish that had released a few albums, which I immediately consumed. Those were a little more on the metal side of the music spectrum, but I still loved them. Then I found an album called Freak Out, It’s Ben Kweller which included some rougher cuts of tracks that were on Sha Sha. It was nonstop. Every day I would listen to Ben Kweller then try to find other music that sounded similar. I ended up learning about Talking Heads, the Pretenders, the Clash, Ben Folds/Ben Folds Five, Cat Stevens, Nirvana, the Foo Fighters, the Beta Band, Donovan, Elvis Costello, and early, Peter-Green-Era Fleetwood Mac just because those artists would pop up as recommended downloading based on my downloading so much BK. I also got more into established Texas music legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top, plus the whole slew of blues musicians (Freddie King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Johnny Copeland) who inspired them through a similar means.

Then in 2004, On My Way was released. By this time I had a learner’s permit and could somewhat control the music that was played in the car while I drove under my parents’ supervision. On My Way, which was a bit of a stylistic shift from Sha Sha, featured a starker combination of acoustic and in-you-face rock songs with two fantastic ballads (“Believer” and “Different but the Same”). It’s the album I associate with learning how to drive and getting my license, which I think is an important time in a teenager’s life. The lyrics were also a bit more mature. Slightly less teenage angst and a bit more full-blown-adult angst. The angst went from sounding lovelorn to just dealing with adult responsibilities, and frankly that gets a little more relevant every day. Whatever the lyrical content, it was another album that just blew me away and one I still listen to regularly.

In 2006 BK released his self-titled album, which I remember hearing about on Myspace, if that dates it a bit. Now, I must admit this was, for a long time, my least favorite album of his, but there is a very good reason for that: I wasn’t old enough to get it. This album is all adult. There’s not hint of the teenage angst of earlier stuff. This album is mature, it’s complex, and it’s more profound, frankly, than anything he’d done up to that point. I still pre-ordered it and received an autographed copy of the CD (which is somewhere in a giant box of music and sports memorabilia that I’m too scared to go through right now for fear that I’ll get nothing else done). As I’ve gotten older, I appreciate this album more. My favorite tidbit about this album is that BK played all the instruments on all the tracks. That’s right. Literally a one-man band. Incredible musicianship. Genius.

It was during this time I also saw BK in concert for the first time. I saw him at the Austin City Limits music festival two years running. The first year I saw him he famously got a nosebleed and used a travel-sized tampon to try and remedy the situation (see cover photo). That was a great show, and he followed that up the next year with another great one (which, if memory serves, included t-shirts for sale with images of a tampon and drops of blood on them). He puts on a great show. Lots of energy, lots of crowd interaction, lots of great music. I’ve seen him a few other times since at smaller venues in Austin and Dallas.

When I was in college, Changing Horses was released. The titles presumably comes from the old adage about changing horses midstream, and a change it was. This is a country album, no two ways about it. But it is a great country album. This album has all the hallmarks of a good Texas-style, honky-tonk country album. The music would be right at home in any dive in Texas or even that biker bar in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. It’s stripped down, but not too much, and for those of us who were beginning to stray from country because it was beginning to sound to homogenous, it was like being hugged by someone you haven’t seen in a long time: familiar but evolved in a way that made you nostalgic for the old stuff while looking forward to the new stuff. As a fun aside, a couple years after this album came out I was working for a minor league baseball team and would always have music going in my office. One person in particular seemed to always walk in when the song “Gypsy Rose” from this album was playing, and that person commenced to calling me Gypsy Rose for the remainder of my time with the team.

Three years after Changing Horses, Go Fly a Kite was released. This album was another change in direction, going almost completely power pop in direction. It’s a great album, if a little on the safe side. Some of the hallmark boundary-pushing from the earlier stuff is missing, but it’s still a solid album all the way through. It was also the first album released on BK’s own label, Austin-based Noise Co. (a label that also features artist Amy Cook, who you should also check out because she’s great).

Finally, after eight long years, a new album from BK, Circuit Boredom, is forthcoming. You can pre-order the vinyl from his website, with delivery slated for December 2020. If the rest of the album is anything like the two songs already released (“Heart Attack Kid” and “Starz”), this will be another slight genre-shift to a combination of unfiltered rock and highly-produced wall-of-sound power pop. I, for one, am looking forward to getting the album and getting something fresh from a guy who I have really admired for almost twenty years now. This release is also one more reason to look forward to Covid getting under control because I’m assuming he’ll start playing in-person shows to support the album and I’ve been jonesing for live music all year.

In sum, Ben Kweller is awesome. He was raised in my part of the country, he’s made music that has reflected my own growth and maturity, he’s put on memorable concerts, he’s experimented with different genres, he’s started his own record label, he’s accomplished on a million instruments, and, though I’ve never met him, he seems like a genuine dude, which is in short supply in the entertainment industry. On a personal level, he was also the artist that touched off a lifetime pursuit of great music. If not for my buddy Stephen burning me that CD, I don’t think I’d have the same appreciation for pioneers like the Beatles and Bob Dylan or newer talent like Kurt Vile and the aforementioned Amy Cook. Ben Kweller is responsible for one of the most consistently enjoyable parts of my life—music. If you know of him, listen to him more. If you don’t know him, quit reading this and start listening.

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