Ben Kweller | Go Fly a Kite
Although entirely in keeping with his fresh-faced looks, it is still hard to believe that Texas-based singer Ben Kweller is only 30 years of age. He has been on the music scene for more than half of those years, his high school rock band Radish having appeared at the Reading festival way back in 1997.
Kweller began writing songs aged nine and had formed the band by the time he was 12. He has rarely strayed too far from a knack for writing energetic, singalong pop songs borne of a musical diet consisting of The Beatles, The Hollies and Jimi Hendrix and other leading lights of the ’60s and ’70s, whose songs Ben learned as a child by jamming in the evenings with his father Howard.
His solo releases, while often patchy, have generally tended to contain a healthy fistful of stellar rockers and gently heart-tugging piano ballads. The video to rollicking 2006 single ‘Penny on the Train Track’ saw Kweller’s indefatigable grandmother dancing along like a carefree teenager.
Likewise, his live shows tend to be enjoyable, feel-good events – even when, at the Austin City Limits festival in 2006, the California-born singer was plagued by an unceasing nosebleed. Memorably, Kweller had to end the set prematurely after covering his guitar and piano in blood and trying unsuccessfully to stem the flow using a travel-sized tampon thrown on stage by an audience member.
Go Fly a Kite, delayed for over a year due to wrangles with his former label, is the first release on his own imprint, The Noise Company. Ever since his solo debut Sha Sha, Kweller seems to have sanded, and then sanded some more, any rough edges, leaving this as perhaps his most shiny-sounding release yet.
Packed with catchy choruses and flawlessly constructed songs, there’s not a great deal to fault technically. There’s a fair amount of waffle to be found among a batch of cliché-strewn lyrics, but leaving that aside Go Fly a Kite makes for 39 minutes of undemanding, breezy and serviceable pop-rock. In the context of his back catalogue, it sits somewhere between Kweller’s last outing, the overtly country-rockin’ Changing Horses, and the power pop hooks of his self-titled 2006 album.
Highlights include ‘Jealous Girl’, whose theatrical thumps of the piano are a precursor to the “woah-oh-ohs” of its irresistible chorus, nestling itself within your subconscience after a single listen. ‘Full Circle’ is gorgeously harmonious, Kweller singing in as carefree and sweet a manner as ever, even if the song is restrained by its unchallenging musical palette.
Yet the principal hitch here is the lack of a discernible spark: a menacing lyric here, a moment of sonic invention there wouldn’t go amiss, and it doesn’t take long before the succession of sugar-sweet choruses begin to leave a slightly sickly taste. It’s enough to prompt this reviewer to yearn for the infinitely greater emotional heft of someone like Fionn Regan, who keeps the pleasing-on-the-ear modern day American singer-songwriter thing interesting by deploying startling imagery and moments which can shatter, as well as gladden, the heart.
Too often on To Fly a Kite, as another unblemished, piano-led MOR number fades out, the listener is left with a shoulder-shrugging, “that was nice enough” feeling. As a long-standing admirer of the endearing and likeable Kweller it pains me to say it but, limited by its formulaic confines, his fifth long-player is guilty of being a tad dull.