Sunday, March 9, 2003

Clever Kweller says more in simple songs

By Chris Varias
The Cincinnati Enquirer

If you don't like how a Ben Kweller song sounds, just give it 10 seconds. It's bound to change.

That's the way it went Thursday night at the 20th Century Theatre in Oakley. Playing to a capacity house, the 22-year-old Kweller, a former member of Radish, patched together a 75-minute show that flaunted his musical versatility, especially when it comes to putting together a song.

Each of the dozen or so tunes in Kweller's set was like a little set within the bigger one. Songs had breaks and bridges appearing at unexpected moments. There were mid-verse tempo changes, quiet-to-loud dynamics, or sometimes quiet-to-quieter dynamics.

It was unorthodox stuff from an ensemble that at its core was simply a pop-rock group.

Kweller, who played keyboards and acoustic and electric guitars, fronted a guitar-bass-drum trio that negotiated the twists and turns without incident and that made the performance feel more like the democratic endeavor of a band than that of a singer-songwriter with hired backups.

Most of the songs came from Sha Sha, Kweller's solo debut released on Dave Matthews' ATO label.

This material was hit-or-miss. When he was rocking out on electric piano in such songs as "Falling," the result suggested Ben Folds.

When he was spewing goofy lyrics about asteroids and Planet of the Apes in "How Should It Be (Sha Sha)" or doing a solo, revved-up version of Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" on acoustic guitar, those "funny" guys in Barenaked Ladies came to mind.

However, Kweller transcended those unfortunate comparisons with a few moments in which he played it straight and kept it simple.

One was the "Ice Ice Baby" follow-up "Lizzy," also a solo acoustic guitar number. The song was written about a real-life girlfriend and it seemed to hit home with the young, female demographic to whom Kweller's music skews.

Another was "Walk On Me," the kind of straightforward, broken-hearted love song that seemed as if it was lying around waiting to be written. That Kweller could tweak a cliche and come up with this song says more about his ability as a composer than the rest of the night's overly clever craftsmanship.

Fellow Texans Centro-Matic opened, and Kweller joined them on vocals for their set-ending song, "My Supermodel Girlfriend Gone AWOL."


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