Ben Kweller's Sha Sha is a big, great mess of a record (NOT a great, big mess there's a difference) that manages a tangible consistency despite its ample inconsistencies tonal, lyrical and instrumental. This homogeneous mood is partly the result of the unabated enthusiasm the former leader of the grunge-influenced Radish communicates in his music, an alacrity that seeps through all 11 tracks like spiritual Krazy Glue.
What kid gets to make a record at home in his apartment, a record about his girlfriend and growing up and love, and have it distributed all across the country? Enthusiasm is understandable. The other part of Sha Sha's remarkable consistency is Kweller's gift for coming up with pure, crystalline pop hooks, melodic and sharp, that stick with you even when the lyrics don't.
It would be easy to say that the record's inconsistencies come up because of Kweller's age; at 20, he's even younger than the newsworthy youngsters in current pop music, younger than Phantom Planet or Conor Oberst or any Stroke you can think of. But Kweller's been doing it since he was 12 (first with Radish), and Sha Sha certainly isn't the first stab he's taken at self-analytical and personal songwriting.
It's not that Kweller is young it's that he's 20. One's first foray into the third decade of life can be something of a shock; it's a confusing landscape of love, panic, pressure, lust and leftover rebellion. It's no wonder that Kweller's songs switch from jangly, whimsical tunes big on guitar and nonsensical ba-ba-ba choruses to contemplative, mournful piano ballads equally big on self-reflection and doubt. He's testing the waters of adult life, wringing the last drops of teenagehood from his Levi's, reveling in his right to experiment with different kinds of songs and tones, saying what he wants and writing his songs mainly for himself.
Kweller's sound is far from original the chord structures are copped from Weezer leader Rivers Cuomo and Kurt Cobain, the pretty piano lines picked up for a couple bucks over at Ben Folds' yard sale. Still, Kweller's detached, post-teenage earnestness, endearing and infecting, draws you into his world and his words. When Kweller deadpans a line like "Forcefield super shield AA / Junior high love affair is OK" (from "Wasted and Ready"), you might not know what he means, but you know how he feels. There's a palpable happiness in Kweller's songs, no matter how often he tries to pull the sad-kid routine. Being 20 might be a mess, but Kweller seems to have a grip on it. Anyone who can name his album Sha Sha has got to be looking on the sunny side at least some of the time.
This, however, is a rock album made by a kid who feels more comfortable with an acoustic guitar or a keyboard than a backing band. Sometimes, on tracks like "No Reason" and "Harriet's Got a Song," the mid-'90s grunge Kweller grew up with seems like too much icing on an already good cake, and you wish he'd just unplug his guitar and cut to the chase of what he's trying to say. On other songs, the pepped-up three-chord anthemic rock fares better "Commerce, TX" is a simple but thrilling chunk of alterna-pop.
Lyrically, the songs are personal but not telling he tells you everything you need to know in the way his voice jumps or doesn't jump, croons or spits, groans or moans. It's a passionate, almost spoken singing voice, full of an ardor that peeks out from
behind Kweller's mop-topped, dispassionate veneer. The strong timbre of his middle-range notes again recalls Rivers Cuomo ("Blue"-period, not "Green"-period), with a Stephen Malkmus sense of fun and frivolity. Kweller's lyrics are obscure in a They Might Be Giants kind of way, and not in a Stephen Malkmus kind of way fun and easy to sing along to, and lacking over-intellectualized sarcasm.
This album is not Kweller's grand message to the world he and his listeners both know that he's got some growing to do before he can make any long-term "statement." The boundless fun of Sha Sha is trying to pick apart the pieces and figure out where he might end up.