Always one to go his own way without worrying too much whether his adoring fans would follow (they have, and will probably continue to) the ever-affable Ben Kweller uses his fourth solo album as a chance not just to produce himself for the first time but also to make the country record he’s been dreaming of for more than a decade. It might be an unexpected detour—thus the title, taken from the old phrase “changing horses in midstream”—from the zippy anthems of previous albums, but his precocious soul and sturdy songwriting are alive and well here.
Kweller’s slant on country comprises everything from the alt. variety, somewhere between the Stones circa Beggars Banquet and early Wilco (see “Gypsy Rose”), to the classic, tear-jerking, easy-rhyming, storytelling kind (“On Her Own,” “Hurtin’ You”). To keep things authentic, he recorded the album in his adopted hometown of Austin and employed pedal-steel guitarist Kitt Kitterman in addition to his touring band—bassist Chris Morrissey and drummer Mark Stepro. That, and a lifelong love of the genre, gives Changing Horses a warm, lived-in feel that makes Kweller sound almost like a regular country balladeer.
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From the rich piano bounce of “Sawdust Man” to the tiptoed elegance of “Ballad of Wendy Baker,” it’s an album that easily gets stuck in one’s head. Kweller is nothing if not charismatic, and whether he’s getting raw in the throat or indulging in syrupy vocal harmonies with his band mates, he’s at the top of his game. The best song, “Old Hat,” bears its simple, heartfelt sentiment—“I never wanna be the old hat you put on your pretty head”—so well that you may never want it to end.