Review Summary: For an experiment in form, Changing Horses is an undeniable success.
Going country seems to be the cool thing to do nowadays with the alternative/indie set, but on acoustic-hippie hero Ben Kweller’s fourth record, it seems much less like an affected art than a natural fit for the former power-pop auteur. The eternally boyish Kweller, more well known for his charmingly earnest lyrics and straightforward guitar-oriented rock ‘n roll, has always had a vaguely sort of country twang to him, from his slightly accented vocals to his childhood in the Texas heartland, but it hasn’t been as wholeheartedly embraced as on the metamorphosis that is Changing Horses. Hey, if Jessica Simpson can do it, Kweller certainly had a decent shot at pulling it off.
Kweller makes it a point to let the listener know that things have changed right off the bat, with the folksy riff that opens the album on “Gypsy Rose” and his fragile, lilting vocals announcing “now you’ve got me goin’ / somewhere no one could find.” No more bland guitar anthems or tongue-in-cheek pop toss-offs for this Ben; “Gypsy Rose” and the following “Old Hat” are as country as anything you’re likely to hear out of Nashville, but Kweller’s endearing accent and tasteful instrumentation, replete with pedal steel guitar, saloon-style piano, and soft drum brushes, make this more of an admirable emulation than a hubristic parody.
Indeed, it’s Kweller’s respect for old-school country that makes Changing Horses such an interesting and authentic experience, especially for those familiar with his past work. Kweller takes the standard conventions of country and does more than passable imitations of them, such as on the entertaining backwoods barroom sing-a-long “Fight,” where he extols the listener to “fight ‘til your dying day” amidst a honky-tonk piano and multi-tracked harmonies. Like Conor Oberst’s latest works and Ryan Adams’ forays into alt-country, Kweller has a good understanding of Americana folk tradition and music, imbuing his vocals with the proper amount of longing and grief on ballads like “Hurtin’ You” and calling up images of that great American symbol, the road, on driving guitar-and-drum based rhythms like the surging closer “On Her Own.” Occasionally, he might get a little too country for some longtime fans’ tastes, such as the corny love ode of “Things I Like To Do,” but, with all due respect to his previous work, it’s nice to hear a change-up every other album or so.
Changing Horses does suffer, however, from what afflicts practically every Ben Kweller album; it remains on a one-track mind the whole way through. Much as Sha Sha or On My Way played the same brand of witty pop rock for twelve or so songs, so does Changing Horses relentlessly maintain the country shtick for the entire length of the record, with little to no variation. Kweller’s fairly vanilla lyrics, which detail love lost or love won or love in some way shape or form throughout most of the album, don’t exactly help in differentiating the songs from each other, but they don’t necessarily detract from the material either.
For an experiment in form, Changing Horses is an undeniable success. For an artistic accomplishment, it falls a little short in its strict adherence to the standard country formula of tear-in-my-beer lyrics and pedal-steel guitar. Songs like the ‘60s pop-meets-redneck-guitar-picker “Sawdust Man” and the haunting strings and bubbling bass of “The Ballad of Wendy Baker,” however, prove that country doesn’t have to suck, and that Kweller more than makes for an acceptable country-rock tunesmith. Maybe next time he’ll trot out an entire album of Afro-Caribbean jazz…dare to dream!