Ben Kweller grew up outside of Dallas, but has been a New Yorker for the majority of his solo career. Though the concept of this album was conceived prior to the Kwellers moving back to Texas last April, it seems things lined up perfectly. While most of Kweller’s recorded output has focused on his rocker side, he always let a pinch of his childhood’s music into the mix. Stripped acoustic ditties like “Lizzy” and “On My Way” showed his folk leanings, and he mixed in banjo and pedal steel on “In Other Words,” even trying his own hand at slide guitar on “Nothing Happening.” Changing Horses is Ben Kweller focusing on that more country aspect of his songwriting, an idea he’s toyed with for years. It’s the sound of a musician having a blast trying a new direction and injected with the energy of recording with a band again after the truly solo Ben Kweller which was fun and poppy yet ultimately his most sterile and chorus-centric album.
Changing Horses is what I would call ‘good country.’ I’m not a fan of popular modern country, the majority of what I’ve come across sounding more ‘pop’ than anything, like disco with a fiddle thrown in. This album pulls more from classic country styles thanks in part to Chris Morrissey’s pulsing root-fifth basslines and Mark Stepro’s unobtrusive yet effective drumming. The sound here is stripped to the core, with each instrument coming through clear in the mix. Kweller goes almost entirely acoustic, allowing Kitt Kitterman to take the spotlight and play countermelody to his vocals, either on slide dobro or electric pedal steel. Perhaps it’s my inheriting of a lapsteel and realizing just how hard they are to play well that has me in awe of this guy, but a listen to the solo section of “Things I Like To Do” should make anyone’s jaw drop.
“Gypsy Rose” is perhaps an odd opener -- a long bluesy tune filled with oft-shifting tempos and meters from a slow finger-picked 4/4 to an even slower waltz and back -- but it sets the mood for the record as a relaxed front-porch affair. Kweller began writing songs outside as he said he once did, which was something not as plausible when living in a NYC apartment. The record strives for a bit of old-time authenticity, tracking to analogue and seemingly recorded without a click track as the musicians intentionally push and pull on the tempos as the songs call for it.
“Fight” is perhaps a bit cliché with its propulsive knee-slappin’ beat and lyrics about a trucker, but it has a chorus so singable it will be stuck with you after the first listen. “On Her Own” is the opposite, bending country to sit in his wheelhouse and nudges past “Fight” for best hook, while both have harmonies just the way you want ‘em. The piano-driven “Sawdust Man” bounces like a country-fried Elton John tune in the verses but shifts to a lively 6/8 chorus as Kweller’s still youthful voice gets raw on the high notes of "I’m on top / Of the Greyhound station!"
“Old Hat” sits up there with the best ballads Kweller has penned and is embellished perfectly by Kitterman’s pedal steel, with the line "I never wanna be" answered by piano plunks before finishing, "The old hat you put on your pretty head." Closer “Homeward Bound” has the feel of an old Southern spiritual lament with sensitive backing by the band. The song that could have been just as effective a cappella, proven in a short break near its ending. However, “The Ballad of Wendy Baker,” while a touching story about a friend lost in a car crash in high school, tends to lose me melodically.
This album is a bit of a gamble for Kweller, who is risking losing fans who may have tolerated bits of country but won’t go ‘all in,’ and it is also another focused step further from the eclectic mish-mash of his debut which won him so many supporters in the first place. But to these ears it is another set of addictive tunes rivaling On My Way for consistency, and at their core they are still BK songs no matter the genre. Don’t dismiss it for it’s label; indulge him and you won’t be disappointed.