“Mmm-Bop” may have been the best thing to happen to Ben Kweller. As teenage leader of the postgrunge band Radish, he was touted as a hitmaking phenom, only to have the brothers Hanson take root on the charts instead. While Radish always looked like kids imitating their older siblings, Kweller acts and sings his age. Puppyish and tentative, he leans into a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” that jettisons the original’s slick seduction in favor of a tremulous declaration. The band’s slightly rumpled mix of blue-eyed soul and pop smarts mirrors that of “Sha Sha,” his new album released on Dave Matthews’ BMG imprint ATO, hitting a postadolescent balance between entropy and energy.
With its echoes of John Lennon (“Family Tree” shares a cockeyed daze with “I’m Only Sleeping”) and early Todd Rundgren, it’s the record Ben Folds always seemed on the verge of making. It must be striking a chord, for without much radio airplay, he managed to sell out the club, with every song met by the kind of high-pitched squeals more likely to be heard at an ‘N Sync or Aaron Carter appearance.
Kweller is an unlikely star, and if music trends could be used as economic indicators, this is the music of recession. Wearing thrift-shop clothes and sporting a shaggy haircut, Kweller is the antithesis of the teen idol of the ’90s. Instead of the faux sophistication of recent teen singers, in “Wasted & Ready” he describes himself as being “maxed out like a credit card,” and in “Walk on Me,” a breakup leaves him “ultramegasad.”
It’s a refreshing change, even when the band overindulges its arena-rock inclinations during “Make It Up.” And there was not one request for a Radish song.