[ATO; 2009]

Ben Kweller’s always been an artist I’ve found to be disappointing. Disappointing in the sense that, on each record, is a handful of very good pop songs, surrounded by dull, impersonal and forgetful nothingness. In short, his greatest flaw as an artist is his consumate blandness. And so it is a welcome turn, this thorough (at times stitled) countrification of Changing Horses. I’m a sucker for good country music, so perhaps I am mistaking a pleasing aesthetic shift for an increase in quality–but I think this is his best record. There are still some snoozers, sure, but the majority of this short little record is unassuming, delicate and professional. Unless this is your introduction to the man, I doubt you’ll often forget that you’re listening to Kweller’s Country Record (and although Kweller sings that he never wants to be “the old hat you put on your pretty head,” the record sometimes is little more than dressing up) but his lack of bite as a singer and songwriter works well within the sadsack context of country. The record’s a bit frontloaded–the first four songs are 4 out of the 5 best–but with nothing dipping below OK, and such a short runtime (35 minutes) it’s a forgivable sin. Ironically, the best song here, “Sawdust Man,” sounds the most like Kweller’s previous work, but its mix of McCartney and Parsons is seamless and points towards a promising future. Hopefully, Kweller won’t drop his newfound dusty drawl on his next record, instead more fully exploring the middle ground between power-pop and alt. country.