[The New Classics is a reoccurring segment in which we examine our favorite indie releases that are bound to replace our parent’s “classic rock” stash hidden in the attic or the basement. These aren’t reviews, these are unedited testimonies and opinions about why we love what we love. Can we get a witness?]
Album: Sha Sha
Artist: Ben Kweller
Released: March 5, 2002
Producer: Roger Greenawalt
Words by Lukas
Ben Kweller, the man whose voice never ages. Eternally young no matter how
mature his themes and songwriting becomes. His first proper album and New
Classic inductee, Sha Sha, came to me as I entered the 10th grade where I had
started my first band, Lumberghost (a poor amalgamation of rock, folk, and funk
with the obligatory Led Zeppelin cover), and couldn’t wait to leave eighth period
and jam in my parents’ basement. Sha Sha was that anxious angst answered with
enough elevated pop sensibilities to relish in the massive hooks.
The Austinite wastes no time establishing to the listener who he is and what he
stands for. The opening title track is a jumpy, twitchy tune in 5/4 or the same meter
as “Take Five,” the Dave Brubeck hit. Anyway, “Sha Sha” is quirky piano pop. He
will shed the piano at times, but it provides the backdrop for the indie-pop that
dominates his career, complete with “bah-bah-bah” backup vocals.
Take the second track “Wasted and Ready” as an example. Kweller loses the keys
and is, well, wasted, and “ready” to presumably “go all the way.” But the piano is
gone and replaced with indie-clean electric guitar only to get jumpkicked in the soul
with some seriously crunchy guitars to which Rivers Cuomo would tip his Buddy Hollys.
“Why am I dealing with this feeling / I’m maxed out like a credit card
I’ll continue to be my worst enemy / it’s easy but it seems so hard
You’re near but you seem so far”
Real teenage emotionalism. Emo? But this emo is fun. It doesn’t have the
undercurrent of Weezer. Cuomo might actually need some meds, but Kweller is a pop man—he knows how to write a song. There is a strong sense of self-awareness
that is strung together from song to song.
The third track for example—”Commerce, TX”—is a grungy ’90s rocker. It could
be a period piece, a lost track from Mellow Gold. Timeless. Classic. “My brain is
superfried.” Helluva line to be able to pull off; you’d expect him to sing next about
how much of a loser he is, right? And as a high-schooler, I was in for the ride, feeling
shitty about my grades, parents, girls, whatever—I’m superfried. Kweller taps that ever-flowing spring of youthful emotionalism and twists it into refined garage pop-
And then the repose. Whoa whoa whoa. Track five, “In Other Words,” as if he
needs to clarify his message. He gets serious with his chord changes. He’s not
as carefree in this one, but that’s ok cause I’m fourteen and I’m just as moody as
any singer-songwriter. But this track is important. It would close out side A on
vinyl, and it kicks it all out the window with a righteous piano solo and some well-
placed “ooooohs” and “yeahs.” Is there a banjo picking, way off and buried in the left
channel? You bet. He’s a master of production. A student of structure.
It’s the record I dreamed (and dream) of making. Kweller has such a handle on
himself, a quality most teenage boys fail to attain. Who am I? What am I doing? are
the questions Kweller asks quite unabashedly, but when you back those up with crunchy overdriven guitars, it’s cool, man. He has the same questions as you, and
his guitar answers them, which is why this record resonated so loudly with me. I
could go to my guitar, pull up the “tabs” and channel my feelings into any one of
these Sha Sha songs.
The emotional climax comes on the ninth track: “Lizzy.” Lizzy is Kweller‘s girlfriend that reappears through a couple of his albums. To me, this track is the most honest. Maybe that comes from the fact that it’s the least produced, meaning there is one
acoustic guitar and one voice. No chorus of harmonies to hide behind. No fuzzed
out Gibson SGs to sing through. The folk ballad keeps its quirk-factor and maintains
an honesty unseen in the previous eight tracks, adding depth and consideration.
Going through the record, each song is perfectly complete from start to finish, with
enough energy and quirk to make it the quintessential “blow-off-some-steam-
album” for those afternoons after high school watching “That ’70s Show” and eating
PB&J cracker sandwiches that mom makes so much better than you.
You want Kweller to be your buddy, to be a friend. He sounds young enough. And for that, he will always be held in my life as a timeless classic of my youth.