Ben Kweller: Sha Sha

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Ben Kweller

Album: Sha Sha
Label: ATO

So far, Ben Kweller's career has been the stuff of Behind The Music legend, complete with a child prodigy, a precipitous fall from grace, millions of wasted dollars, and a return to glory that may or may not loom on the horizon. The only element missing from this rise-and-fall saga is the actual rise. Kweller made headlines—and served as the focal point of a famous 10-page New Yorker article—as the 15-year-old leader of Radish, a so-so grunge band that sparked mammoth hype, a major-label bidding war, and a $2.5 million contract with Mercury Records. But the band's debut album, 1997's Restraining Bolt, wasn't very good, sounding more like a collection of Silverchair outtakes than the work of Kweller's most notable influence, Kurt Cobain. The hype, coupled with Restraining Bolt's marginal quality, fueled a backlash that further turned off an already indifferent public. Cut to five years later, and a 20-year-old, battle-tested Kweller is again the subject of positive pre-release press and wide distribution, this time through Dave Matthews' label. On Sha Sha, the musical results are far more satisfying, though Kweller again courts charges of derivativeness, periodically replacing his old Cobain fixation with a tendency to mimic the vocal inflections and guitar crunch of Weezer. "Commerce, TX" and the single "Wasted & Ready" could easily be mistaken for prematurely leaked tracks from that band's forthcoming album, but elsewhere, Sha Sha illustrates Kweller's substantial creative growth. The sweetly loping cabaret-pop of "Family Tree," the bouncy "Walk On Me," and the ambitiously arranged midtempo ballads "In Other Words" and "Falling" overshadow their more familiar counterparts, displaying a confidence not heard during the singer's more complicated teen years. The result is strong enough to make listeners forget that Kweller was ever in Radish, not that they haven't already.