Freak out, it’s Ben Kweller … gone country.
Changing Horses marks the singer’s first country album and fourth solo album to date. Originally scheduled for a September 2008 release (and leaked onto the Internet Nov. 23.), the record represents an understandable turning point in Kweller’s life. Although older songs like “Family Tree” recall Kweller’s bucolic background, it took several life-changing events for the singer to pull from his pastoral past for an entire record.
A lot has happened since around the time Kweller (who is still just 27) released his self-titled third album in the fall of 2006.
First, BK became a father after his wife Lizzy gave birth to their son, Dorian. This came as a blessing rather than a burden for Kweller, who turned his subsequent tour into a family affair, bringing them along on the bus.
Then his backing band disbanded. Former guitarist Jason Roberts and drummer Tony Kent left to form what is now one half of Hymns, a Brooklyn-based indie rock band.
Finally, in April 2008, after spending more than eight years in the city, the Kwellers left New York for Austin, Texas.
To Kweller, a Texas native, the move made sense. Feeling cramped in their NYC apartment, the Kwellers longed for a return to nature and the simple life. In BK’s new role as family man, Austin fit the bill.
Austin is also where Kweller recorded Changing Horses, which took just 11 days to complete at Spoon drummer Jim Eno’s studio, Public Hi-Fi.
In place of his former backing band Kweller recruited Mark Stepro (drums) and Chris Morrissey (bass). Dubbed the “Trio on the Train Track,” the new album also features the talents of Kitt Kitterman, who plays pedal steel guitar and dobro (a resonator acoustic guitar designed to be loud enough to be heard over other instruments).
Changing Horses is the first of Kweller’s albums to be self-produced.
The album opens up with “Gypsy Rose,” a bluesy song named after a prostitute pursued by a down-and-out man on a weekly basis.
Catchier, faster tracks like “Hurtin’ You” and “Sawdust Man” give the CD a pick-me-up, breathing life into Kweller’s small-town sound.
“Things I Like To Do” is the album’s lone throwaway track. Less than stellar lyrics like, “I don’t know what to do, but I know what I like to do,” make it seem like a borderline cop out, even for a down-home record like this one.
While there may not be as many standalone gems on Changing Horses as heard on his previous albums, Kweller’s boyish charm and storytelling skills remain. The album may not win BK as many new fans as a poppier effort might have, but that’s about the last thing he seems to care about at this point. On Changing Horses, Kweller stays true to his Texas beginnings.
Kweller caps off his 10-track CD with “Homeward Bound,” a slowed down gospel track about a Colorado drug addict. Written in the ’60s but never recorded, Kweller decided to include the track after hearing his friend play it.
BK isn’t the first popular indie artist to go country. Just last August, Conor Oberst similarly turned his back on the musical styles that brought him fame, recruited a new backing band and ran away to Mexico to record his recent self-titled record.
Although the two records are comparable, Kweller-who Oberst recruited to play guitar on his 2007 track “Stray Dog Freedom” on Bright Eyes’ Four Winds EP-has made a more traditional and easily accessible country album than 2008’s Conor Oberst.
In support of Changing Horses, Kweller is currently touring with the Watson Twins, who entered the public consciousness after backing up Rilo Kiley lead singer Jenny Lewis on her debut album, Rabbit Fur Coat (2006).