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ISSUE 121 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/5/2007

Ben Kweller: On his way

By Katelyn Reid
Contributing Writer

Friday, October 5, 2007

It seems as though there has been a less-than-overwhelming display of enthusiasm for this year's fall concert featuring Ben Kweller and Mason Jennings, with Ha Ha Tonka opening. Unless you're a super indie hipster, this probably doesn't come as much of a surprise.

The general reaction seems to be, "Um, Ben who?" And while Mason Jennings is a critically lauded homegrown hero, he tends to inspire more of a laidback enthusiasm from his fans. There is an inclination for both artists to blend into the background of their respective musical scenes. Neither is going to take the easy route to fame and fortune and marry Britney Spears.

In most cases, student reactions have been ambivalent; they weren't expecting musical artists so much as musical performers.

Imagine: here we are, good little Oles, singing Lutheran hymns in Cashmere sweaters. But the student body has a juicy secret: it's a totally hot body. And when fall concert comes around, we want to take this body out and show this body off. Who among us hasn't heard that St. Olaf is one of Playboy's favorite schools? Apparently this rumor has been dispelled, but regardless, herein lies the problem for Kweller and Jennings: they are not the most likely candidates to help the student body get its sexy on.

Three years ago at this time, students were like Larry Craig on Fire Island.They were so excited for Ben Folds that they showed up in droves for the concert. Folds' popularity with Oles makes sense. According to Facebook's network statistics, he is cited most often on students' favorite artist lists. The man has mad piano skills, and we're all about that here.

Of course, Ben Kweller plays piano too, as well as harmonica, guitar, and, actually, every instrument on his newest, self-titled release. However, the biggest problem facing Ben Kweller and Mason Jennings is that they just aren't famous enough. Kweller rubs elbows with all the hip groups right now: Guster, Death Cab for Cutie, the Strokes and Adam Green.

In addition, Mason Jennings has been hailed as the best artist to come out of Minnesota since Bob Dylan (sorry Prince, they're out of your league). But somehow, neither Ben Kweller nor Mason Jennings has made that bridge from promising breakthrough artist to trendy musical sensation.

Who should we blame for Ben Kweller not measuring up to the stardom of his contemporaries like Ben Folds, the Rentals, the Shins or The New Pornographers? Whose fault is it that Mason Jennings might never be able to separate himself from the ubiquitous blue-collar folk scene despite the fact that he has a distinct musical vision? How about Corporate America? That's always a fun and easy target.

No. Well, maybe. But probably not. However, I do know that we have three talented artists coming to St. Olaf next week. The small population that is actually familiar with the music is pretty excited for the show. If people gave the music a listen, I suspect that there would be an increased enthusiasm for October 6. Explosive fame is not the only standard for great talent.

Kweller has been recording with major labels since he was 15. In 1993 he hopped on the angst train with a fresh-out-of-pre-pubescence garage band, Radish, and rode the musical waves of the likes of Nirvana until the grunge surf ebbed in the late nineties.

His solo career began in 2002 with the release of Sha Sha. I have it under post-rock in the genres section of my iTunes, but it's more like piano-rock, or power pop. Kweller is pretty much whatever you would classify Ben Folds as, but take out some of the artificial saccharine of overproduction, replace it with quirkier lyrics, add a lime and you've got a fine little cocktail of sound. That's how it should be.

Sha Sha captures a phase in Kweller's career where he shedding his old career and changing musical directions. The album is remarkably cohesive, and despite being written by one person, doesn't slip into boring sonic homogeneity. Kweller's gift for wit, rock and pop made him a hit with the fans of a variety of musical styles.

He took his music to a new level with his sophomore effort, On My Way. There's a little more kick; more guitar, less piano; more rock, less roll. Plagued by clunky arrangements and serious growing pains, the album did not catch on as well with fans, though it was lauded by critics for its stripped-down recording style. Though there was no real radio single, the title track, "On My Way," stands as a testament to Kweller's talent of being earnest and emotional without coming across as sappy or overwrought.

By the time he released his third record, Ben Kweller, last year, the music became more personal and the words became more meaningful. The album was released to mixed reviews. Some latched on to the strong rock flow of the album.

Others noted that without the goofy-in-love euphoria that graced Sha Sha, Kweller has become a by-the-numbers power pop throwaway.

And then the unfavorable label of being a lightweight Ben Folds started cropping up in the media.

But let's cut through the drama and color of music reviews: Ben Kweller is a solid album. It might not have the silly vibe that kept Sha Sha afloat. It might even feel a little more watered down than On My Way. Still, it will be a fun album to bop around at a concert to. Concert goers who want to snuggle up to that special someone should have no problem with Kweller's set, and neither should Oles wishing to dance the night away.

Mason Jennings has produced six full albums, which means that he has released twice as many records as Kweller. All the same, without the drive of pop-rock behind his music, he's somewhat less of a financial success than Ben Kweller. Being Minnesota-based, he tends to be well known in these parts, but Jennings is definitely an intimate-setting performer, and less likely to appear in large and rowdy venues.

Accompanied primarily by acoustic guitar and piano harmonies, Jennings strips down songwriting to its essentials. He is a twenty-first century bard, singing about life with a melancholy Midwestern perspective.

"It all comes down to kerosene /and sorry signs on cash machines / it don't look like anything we've dreamed of," he sings in "Sorry Signs on Cash Machines" in his easy tenor voice.

If you raised Jack Johnson away from the ocean, and put him in the Midwest, you would get an artist to rival Mason Jennings.

Both musicians demonstrate a high degree of social and political awareness. In "United States Global Empire", from the album Birds Flying Away, Jennings writes, "Freedom is not domination / freedom is the ability to feel love for everyone." If Jennings and Jack Johnson came to blows, it's hard to know who would win, Mason armed with his lance of social justice, or Jack with a spear of peace and harmony.

Not all of Jenning's songs concentrate on politics. His sentimentality and his historical awareness pervade many of his tracks. "Sometimes this heart is made of glass / and I often find myself / living only in the past," he declares on his song "East of Eden," which appears on his 2002 album, Century Spring.

The opener, Ha Ha Tonka, is an alternative country group. Imagine if Kings of Leon covered Neko Case. At any rate, Ha Ha Tonka is one of those grass-roots bands that has the opportunity to try something non-mainstream.

Based out of Missouri, they're too southern for Clear Channel Communications, but they don't drawl enough to be classified as straight up "country." There's that classic rock-star graininess to front man Brian Robert's voice that says, "Yes, I've smoked enough actors, but I rock anyway." His vocals are similar to what became of Joni Mitchell's voice during the latter half of her career, or how Keith Richard's voice has never properly seen the unfiltered light of day.

Ben Kweller, Mason Jennings, and Ha Ha Tonka may not have the same mainstream draw that we Oles are looking out for, but they do know music. It should be one fine evening of entertainment. Get ready.

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