Issue #47: Sha Sha by Ben Kweller
January 9, 2017
Released On March 5, 2002
Released By ATO Records
I first heard Ben Kweller on an Alternative radio station in Virginia Beach (which has either shut down, changed call letters, or slipped my mind) while my mother and I drove home from something. I was home from college for the summer in between freshman and sophomore year and as we neared the house, “Wasted & Ready” came on. It’s the second track on the album and was maybe the closest thing to a “hit single” that he ever had, with a chorus that states, in part, “She is a slut.” As you might have guessed, it was a little awkward in the car when this song was playing. My mom and I don’t have the kind of relationship where we can just listen to that kind of thing and not have it be weird so it wasn’t a particularly auspicious start to my relationship with BK (a moniker that he uses to refer to himself and which I feel like I will be cooler for using).
For whatever reason, I ended up buying this album. I may have been acting on a recommendation of someone. I was surrounded by both kinds of people that would influence me on this kind of thing my whole life: cool guys that I aspired to be like and pretty, cool girls that I aspired to impress. Or maybe it was a magazine. I don’t know. I feel like there are so many albums I love that I have no idea how I came to own them.
But suddenly, somehow, I owned it. And I listened to it a lot. The thing that I particularly love about this album is that, even though the songs are very different from each other, and all excellent, they sound like they could be coming from the garage of the kid down the street. They’re so accessible, but so profound, and endlessly listenable.
There’s also a progression to the songs. As the album progresses, you can hear BK polish and hone his style. “How It Should Be (Sha Sha),” which kicks off the album, is a piano song that feels almost like it’s stumbling over its words and lyrics. I mean this in the very best of ways, of course. It feels almost like the theme song of the album (which is the purpose that the title track often serves) before we get into the rocking. By the end, we’ve had highs and lows, beautiful harmonies and wild freak-outs. The dust clears and there’s BK back at the piano, playing the most put together, mature, polished song on the album: “Falling.” He’s older. He’s loved some and lost some, but he’s learned some, too. The album is an eleven track coming-of-age story and, for me, at least, that’s how it should be. Sha Sha.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
A power pop child prodigy all grown up.
Damn, right on. This album, the 2002 solo debut by Ben Kweller, is a much more straightforward and easy album to talk about than the typical OYR offering, and that’s a relief not so much because it’s easier as because it’s more fun. I remember when Kweller released this album, and lead single “Wasted & Ready” got a bunch of airplay in the sort of alternative outlets (late-night music video programs, university radio stations) that I typically pay attention to. One particular line from the chorus– “Sex reminds her of eating spaghetti” — struck me as annoyingly meaningless, to the extent that I wrote off Kweller as an artist, pretty much completely. Listening to Sha Sha today, though, I recognize the folly of that decision. Sure, “Wasted & Ready” has that same so-catchy-it’s-almost-annoying tendency that made me want to hate early Weezer (this is a thin line to walk and an easy one to fall on the wrong side of, for sure — see post-y2k Weezer for an object lesson). However, this album as a whole is so crammed full of catchy, energetic pop tunes with an unrestrained crunch that was more common in the alt-rock era of the post-Nirvana ’90s (and now seems depressingly rare), the cumulative result is fucking undeniable. Sha Sha is a blast of youthful verve from a 20-year old wunderkind who’d already devoted several years of his life to a previous failed attempt at commercial success with his previous band, Radish. The fact that Radish’s failure did nothing to diminish the irrepressible spirit that shines through on this album is remarkable in and of itself. The fact that this album’s best tunes — not only “Wasted & Ready,” but also “Walk On Me,” “Commerce, TX,” “No Reason,” “In Other Words,” and hell, pretty much all of them — do bring the rock back to an indie genre that leaves off that second word, as well as what it represents, on way too frequent a basis makes Sha Sha all the more refreshing to these fatigued ears. I’ve been lulled to sleep by way too many Pitchfork hype vehicles over the past decade; I’m not gonna miss this second chance to big-up an artist with way more Matthew Sweet than Colin Meloy in his DNA. Am I getting a little convoluted? If so, it’s just my nature as a critic. One listen to Sha Sha will blow away all the word salad of this review and leave you dancing around your bedroom playing air guitar. What more do you need?
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
I remember when the nerds took over in 1994. Rock & Roll was in a strange place — the general disgust with the hair bands of the ’80s gave way to the grunge revolution of the early ’90s, but then what? You know how when you’re in your early thirties (which Rock kind of was at the time), and all of your friends have gotten married, had kids, and then that first round of divorces hits? There’s a general feeling of “what do we do now”? That’s sort of what happened when Weezer exploded onto the scene, and spawned a thousand pimple-faced, spastic, surprisingly emotionally adept nerds that tugged at your heart strings while at the same time tugging on their own sweater strings (see what I did there?). Which brings us to Ben Kweller’s debut Sha Sha. Right away, the opening piano stabs of “How It Should Be (Sha Sha)” let us know that there’s going to be a happy-go-not-so-lucky vibe here. It’s that kind of ironically happy (read: underlying sadness) place where all Judd Apatow movies live. It’s brilliantly sprinkled over top of “Harriet’s Got A Song” in the form of tiny bells (I call them “tiny bells” because I feel presumptuous in assuming the band actually used a Fisher-Price Xylophone, even though it sounds exactly like a Fisher-Price Xylophone). And it’s the backbone of “Wasted & Ready” — the struggle of every man standing between reckless youth and responsible adulthood. The overall vulnerability of this record makes it so relatable, and after being entertained, I think that’s all we really want from our artists.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Let’s start with the fact that, by unfortunate fate, neither this album, nor Ben Kweller, crossed my path in the early 2000s. My first three thoughts following play through were: Ben Folds (Five) — the former being Rockin’ The Suburbs era and the latter, Whatever & Ever Amen era — “Kweller sounds like a young Rivers Cuomo,” and “This album channels a lazy archetype so acutely it’s scary” (“I am wasted but I’m ready… It’s the slacker lifestyle / that we do so well”). A fan of Folds and Cuomo, how this record escaped my awareness is baffling. Anyway, my reflex thoughts ended up relevant, as Sha Sha was released (via ATO) in 2002 — only one year after Rockin’ The Suburbs. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that Kweller is so identical or idolizing, that he phoned songs in back then. Kweller has enough of his own vocal inflection and sung nuance that he can be easily picked out in a playlist. Beyond audible similarities, Sha Sha delivers songwriting elements that are a pleasure to notice, even if they’re not new. Kweller slides between perfect AABB rhyme scheme and imperfect stretches (“Care about the moonlight / And holding you tight / And asking my questions / Everyone loves a situation”). He applies touches of jazzy piano (“In Other Words“), gives us a track that comes across like an acoustic guitar demo one would find selling unexpectedly well in Bandcamp’s “new arrivals” queue, and, of course, a nod must be given to starting an album with a song in 5/4. It’s an instant trip back to “2000s snarky-but-sometimes-sensitive piano rock and power pop” and it clicked with me immediately. If I had discovered Sha Sha at the time of its release, and if Twitter had been a thing back then, most definitely I would have been calling for a dual “Ben to the Second Power” tour. Barring the ability to time travel or it spontaneously happening in the future, at least the world had — even if for a brief time — “The Bens” super group.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
When I was first learning to play the guitar — we’re talking late-middle or early-high school — my dad gave me a copy of a New Yorker article about Radish, the band Ben Kweller fronted as a teenager. I think my dad’s gesture was meant to say “Look! Kids your age with guitars can do awesome stuff!” I’m 33 now, but Kweller hasn’t aged the same way I have — or at least his voice hasn’t. His music has certainly evolved, in the sense that he’s moved more toward Americana in recent years, away from the melodic rock found on Sha Sha. But I think I’ll always hear adolescence in his singing. Part of that is the way I was introduced to him, and part is his actual voice, which takes on an unassuming, innocent quality in quieter moments. It’s also that certain lyrics from Sha Sha — sudden, precocious declarations like “Sex reminds her of eating spaghetti” in “Wasted & Ready” and “Butterflies are passive-aggressive” in “In Other Words” — are so burned into my brain that I’d count them among my most formative musical memories. But the more I think about it, the more I think I’m holding onto my dad’s original gesture — the idea that people can outpace their age when it comes to creativity. “Walk On Me” is expertly constructed, with a key change thrown in near the end as icing on the cake. It’s perfect. I promise I don’t mean to paint Ben Kweller as some kind of child star — more as someone who’s always made me feel like you alone control the pace of your accomplishments.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Because a giant strawberry matches up perfectly with a skull background. Of course.
In 2004, I was hearing a lot of Guster on the alternative radio station I listened to when commuting between two towns in upstate New York that never felt like home. This was also the year I got really into Brendan Benson’s masterwork Lapalco and Rogue Wave’s sorrowfully underrated Out Of The Shadows, leading me to believe soft power pop was going to return to indie rock. I could have added Ben Kweller’s Sha Sha, which came out in 2002, the same year as Lapalco, to the top of the heap, though I never got into it as I initially dismissed it as silly and corporate. This is straight up the catchiest Off Your Radar selection since all the way back in Issue #3 with Pretty & Nice’s Golden Rules For Golden People (well worth a re-listen). Sure, some of the lyrics are dumb — “She is a slut but her ex thinks it’s sexy / Sex reminds her of eating spaghetti” from “Wasted & Ready” really stood out to me — but Kweller was a teenager when he wrote these songs. Truly, all is forgiven when you also write melodies this stellar. Kweller’s voice is nothing special, but it moves cleanly through the hooks, becoming familiar and warm halfway through Sha Sha. I have a soft spot for sweet ballads named for girls, and “Lizzy” ticks all the right boxes, as Kweller sings, “Me and my darlin’ keep love alive / Even on Texas time.” Swoon. Even though I can hear Kweller (and Benson’s) influence in artists like Tobias Jesso, Jr., I am still waiting for indie rock’s gentle power pop revival. Maybe 2017 is finally my year.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
There was a period of time when Weezer was still broken up and we all just desperately wanted a follow up to Pinkerton. In hindsight, I really wish Ben Kweller had dropped Sha Sha and swept hungry Weezer fans off their feet. Sha Sha is a much better record than a combination of best parts of Weezer’s Green Album and Maladriot. Instead, the soundtrack of our last carefree summer before living in the post 9/11 world was filled with “Hash Pipe” and “Island In The Sun.” We should have been jamming “Wasted & Ready” from our cars as we cruised down the street. Perhaps we should have listened to more Radish in the ’90s.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
Ben Kweller’s Sha Sha has one of the best opening track lyrics of all time. (No, it’s not the “Don’t bother me when I’m watching Planet of the Apes on TV,” although that’s that great line.) When I heard “So sue me, it’s up to me if I decide to be what I think is right,” I knew this was going to be a great record of positivity with an upbeat rock feeling to boot. Although I’m familiar with Kweller’s later offerings, I must admit his debut slipped right past my radar (see what I did there?). While the upbeat stuff is great, Kweller really shines with the more somber songs like “In Other Words” — but even that becomes an upbeat anthem. Many reviews tend to lump Kweller in with the other “Ben” musicians (Folds, Lee, Gibbard), but Kweller makes his music his own thing and his debut’s clearly shows off his immeasurable talent for songwriting. That’s right! Sha sha!
Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler
I admit to being confused by Ben Kweller when he first came out. There was the comic name, the hangdog look, the goofy album cover, the sometimes jokey lyrics — was this guy for real? I mean he came out of a band called Radish, for goodness sake. Going back now and listening to his debut over a dozen years later, not only do I think he was for real, but I think he was onto something. There’s the Nirvana via Weezer loud-quiet-loud songs alongside what used to be called “soft rock,” which seems to presage some of the Harry Nilsson-inspired ’70s AM radio trends around right now. He’s also a damned good tunesmith, breezy melodies leading into killer choruses without seeming effort. “In Other Words,” a beautiful ballad that works its way up to an affirming coda, is probably my favorite song, but give the whole album a chance. You might just have a new favorite Ben.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Ahhh, the early aughts (did that ever stick?)… when the state-side version of Indie was finally breaking into the mainstream — it had been lurking since the early to mid-eighties. The Strokes released Is This It and signified the movement from college radio stations to Chipotle and mall boutiques. Death Cab was on the rise and The Shins were about to be a household name. On this cusp, we find plenty of tremendous records. Sha Sha was great then and still holds up fantastically. I had almost forgotten how much I love this album. Wonderfully quirky sad-man music gushes forth like Pinkerton‘s little lost sibling — as Ben puts it “mega ultra sad.” The harmonies Mr. Kweller, oh the harmonies! There’s some serious Elliott Smith-ish pop going on, but to great effect! The wax and wane of tube drive and piano ditties really show how well rounded of an album it truly is. There’s even some alt-country flair thrown in for good measure. “In Other Words” is a micro-sprawl piano ballad like Ben Folds channeling “November Rain.” The craft is impeccable, not only on the guitar tones but also in the arrangements — “Walk On Me,” “Make It Up,” and “Harriet’s Got A Song” all employ key changes, as does Pinkerton! Speaking of “Harriet’s,” anyone who pairs crunchy guitars and glockenspiel will always have my admiration. All in all I hear more classic rock influence from the ’70s (like Big Star) powering through than typical alternative. So here’s the hallmark of this pivotal time and music — looking further back to go further forward. File this under Indie Pop/Rock canon.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
Dulcet and earnest music, quirky and exceptional spirit.
Four years ago I quietly left my husband, asking him how he could be so surprised when he had stopped seeing me years before. Three years and seven months ago, when he introduced me to the woman he wanted to marry, I asked how he could be so sure that would work when after ten years we didn’t. I don’t know for sure, he said, but I think so, and isn’t that enough for now? Taking down ornaments from our withered tree today, listening to “Family Tree,” so many of my fears in the face of my own engagement came to the front of my mind. In any relationship, you can never hope for more than it being beautiful until it isn’t, and even though I believe in the value of the moment, those glorious little bits of happy normalcy that make up the day to day with another person, I sometimes lie awake at night waiting for Eric to become bored and decide to stop when I’m still going. Ben Kweller’s Sha Sha often gets at these kinds of thoughts streams, the insecurities inside and beyond a relationship. The simple “Be good to me” floating through “Family Tree,” the “they’re only words, they don’t hurt” from “Make It Up” voice deep-rooted, familiar fears framed as deceptively simplistic entreaties out into the ether. A voice like Ben Folds, with that fairly high-pitched, through-the-nose almost whine, and pop progressions unmistakably Weezer-esque, the album should be pleasing to most everyone. There is enough mainstream sensibility in the sound to be appealing, with sprinkles other artists like Jeremy Enigk in the piano, that should be interesting to those of us more inclined to play those kinds of matching games with music. For me, for the first time in a few weeks here, I got pulled through the wall of sound into the lyrics almost immediately. In listening as the snow fell down around the home Eric and I are slowly building together, making a powdery barricade between us and you, Kweller provided a fitting soundtrack to be isolated, silent at times, in my own thoughts and worries.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
The story of Ben Kweller floats through a number of lenses. It’s been close to fifteen years since Sha Sha was officially released by ATO Records. These were the songs that caught the eyes of folks like Evan Dando, Jeff Tweedy, and Juliana Hatfield. Kweller was this kid from Texas that wore his influences unapologetically on his sleeve while still retaining a very unique approach to songwriting as well as storytelling. Despite this record slipping by me upon its initial release, one could listen to this in 2017 and still find themselves hooked. On rockers like “No Reason” and “Commerce, TX,” Kweller is a student of the nineties. Quirky references, power chords, pogo-inducing choruses, and the perfect balance between Stephen Malkmus and Rivers Cuomo are on full display. “Lizzy” might be a personal favorite as an acoustic ballad with a strong melody and a sentiment anyone could get behind (especially when you learn that it’s a song for Kweller’s wife, Liz Smith). The de facto single “Wasted & Ready” seems like a curious choice in hindsight, but it charted nonetheless and still remains a set mainstay in his current live repertoire. Sha Sha is an early indicator of the gamut of Kweller’s songwriting prowess. The true beauty in unveiling strong musical works long after their release is that there is always a catalog to dig through immediately after. Outside of the remaining four LPs that Kweller released, a record that slipped my mind was the collaborative effort named The Bens that Kweller did alongside Ben Folds and Ben Lee. That will definitely be next on my list of records to check out.
Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
Ben Kweller stopped me from listening to non-stop Ed Sheeran. Is that enough for a review? Too vague? Is Ed Sheeran uncool? Should I have admitted that? Have I lost all credibility after only nine days of the year? I had none to begin with? Stop writing like this you talentless hack to stretch out your word count? Fine. Truth be told, I’ve had a crazy busy first week of the year, so instead of multiple listens of Sha Sha like I usually do for my reviews, this is based on one sole listen. Is that enough for a critique? Probably not, but one listen was all it took for me to like this record. Sha Sha is like a compilation album, but it’s all one guy, and he’s doing every genre well and it’s great. “How It Should Be (Sha Sha)” sounds like it should be a Beck track, but then “Wasted & Ready” sounds like Pinkerton-era Weezer. “In Other Words” sounds like Semisonic. You get my point. On this record Kweller has tapped into what works with other band and songs of the time and produced his own take, yet he’s done it without sounding like a one-note rip-off. I came away from Sha Sha quite impressed and ready for more. I’m looking forward to listening to some of Ben Kweller’s other records to see if they deviate genre or if he keeps using the sounds of the time to influence his music. It’s the type of musical exploration I greatly enjoy and it’s a good start to the year.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
To some, “Wasted & Ready” was the best foot forward for Ben Kweller’s solo career. Unavoidable catchy, endlessly quotable, and effortlessly charming; truly a great rock song of its time. But to others, this song, though good, was an immediate strike against him. Some painted it as naively derivative of the ’90s sound, others as a hapless casualty of coming a few years too late. Unfortunately, you’ll never be able to change the latter’s mind, even if you shrewdly point out that the biggest “hits” of ’90s Weezer never even came close to the refined horn (French horn? euphonium maybe?) accompaniment that “Wasted & Ready” utilized. Instead, you should help these people realize that the greatness of Sha Sha and Kweller is not emblematic of “Wasted & Ready,” that so much more unfolds throughout his first record that labelling it “derivative” is just irresponsible. The sophisticated sound of “Falling” alone points to a realized musician capable of far more than just re-packaging past noises while “In Other Words” marries this and the more alt-style in a way only Kweller can provide. Once you get past wondering what it sounds like or when it should have come out, you’ll find a record full of resourceful songwriting, cheeky lyrics, and exciting execution, three things that always make an album worth hunting down.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
A Heart Full Of Love by DARKPYRAMID
Chosen By David Munro