He Might Sing About Them, But Ben Kweller Is Hardly A Slacker

"It's a slacker's lifestyle that we do so well," folk-popster Ben Kweller muses on "Commerce, TX," a song from his new album and solo debut, "Sha Sha," due March 26 via ATO).

"It's a slacker's lifestyle that we do so well," folk-popster Ben Kweller muses on "Commerce, TX," a song from his new album and solo debut, "Sha Sha," due March 26 via ATO).

Yet it's hard to believe that Kweller is writing from his own vantage point when offering lyrics on unmotivated youth. After wrapping up recording sessions for "Sha Sha," Kweller enjoyed little-to-no downtime. Rather, he busied himself with laboring over the album's artwork and gathering together his band for a string of preparatory rehearsals. And on March 1, after a quick jaunt to London to play a show, the fresh-faced 20-year-old set out on the road for more than a month, accepting the opening slot for Florida's forlorn acoustic sweetheart, Dashboard Confessional.

"Sha Sha," which was produced by Steven Harris and recorded in 2001 during the months of August and November, is an 11-song collection of tunes that Kweller -- a native Texan and unashamed fan of Garth Brooks, scuba diving, and baseball cards -- began writing soon after he and his girlfriend, Liz, relocated to Brooklyn, N.Y., after a stint in Connecticut.

Mining territory that relies on the fuzzy, garage-pop sentimentality of early Weezer, the piano-driven earnestness of Ben Folds, and the cut-and-paste folk idiosyncrasies of Beck, Kweller's sound treads familiar territory. However, his ear for simple and clean melodies combined with his ability to turn a catchy hook baits the listener despite all obvious reference points.

Similarly, his unfettered sincerity and geekish charm are entirely convincing throughout "Sha Sha." And while it isn't a wholly groundbreaking release, Kweller shows accelerated promise for his age. For now, though, he can relish and delight in the fact that he's crafted an incredibly likable and hum-worthy album.

"It was definitely an easy album to make," he says. "One thing Steven and I talked about before going in and making the record was about less being more. We decided on one drum set and one piano, instead of doubling everything and making it huge."

By favoring a stripped-down approach, Harris and Kweller created an album that sounds altogether intimate and spontaneous, as if Kweller had been captured in his bedroom or at a school dance with the most top-notch, lo-fi equipment money can buy.

"Wasted and Ready," which is the first single from the album, balances delicate guitar strumming with a buoyant, singalong chorus that is playfully nonsensical: "She goes above and beyond the call of duty/Sex reminds her of eating spaghetti/I am wasted but I'm ready." Here, Kweller's voice is almost a dead ringer for the signature croon of Weezer's Rivers Cuomo.

While "Family Tree" is a cool and mild-mannered acoustic ditty, "In Other Words" is a remarkably touching and somber piano ballad that is reminiscent of both Folds and Carole King. The song works itself into a feverish climax, enabling Kweller to showcase his proficiency with the keyed instrument.

According to Kweller, he never really intended for "Sha Sha" (a title which his former, now-defunct band, Radish, had planned to use as the title for its third album) to be released on a major label. "Basically, the second I moved to New York, I started writing songs for the album. I just figured I would record it on the computer and sell it myself at shows. When I signed [to ATO], I was pretty much ready to go, and I had about 10 songs ready."

No stranger to major-label triumphs and pitfalls -- as the frontman and guitarist of Radish, a band Kweller formed at the near-infantile stage of 11 -- Kweller witnessed firsthand everything from a much-touted bidding war to a subsequent label dropping after time spent leapfrogging from Mercury to Universal to Island Def Jam. At this point in his career, Kweller sounds wholly refreshed and unconcerned with things like high album sales.

"I'm just gonna do what I always do," he says. "I have faith in my record company. I know they are in it for the long haul. If we sell a few thousand and that's it, then I'll still keep going and building that fan base. My [astrological] chart said, 'You must do art or you will crumble.' So, I cannot not do music."

Excerpted from the March 23, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full text of the article is available in the Billboard.com members section.

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