Intelligence and art share a most fortuitous interplay. Art — be it paintings, music, or theater — is only as good as society’s worst enemy: Therein is the bane, and thy name is brainpower.
On Sept. 30 at the St. Petersburg Times Forum, Ben Kweller opens for Incubus in what will certainly be an instance of the fiefdom of the intelligentsia encroaching upon the repugnant grounds of the suburban common denominator.
Since the age of 16, Kweller has dwelled beneath the aegis of tastemakers and hipsters, first as lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the now-defunct punk trio Radish and then during a two-year international and domestic touring jag with the likes of Dashboard Confessional, the Strokes, Kings Of Leon, and Dave Matthews Band.
One would assume that such exertion would chip the musician’s shoulder, but that is clearly not the case.
It is clear that Kweller embraces his stature, as he looks forward to touring with Incubus and being in contact with their breed of fans as “A good thing: to play for those kids, to open their minds to good music.” Though he is put off by the arena rock sound, he does hope to expose those in attendance to a sound that is more back-to-basics than it is primed-for-millions.
“The best thing that could happen is that (Incubus’) fans might be turned on to my music.” Such a thing would resemble the development of Fellini’s villagers in Amarcord: Those with foresight abandon pretense and get to the root of enjoyment — appetites pursued with abandon — whilst improving themselves. Certainly, Kweller’s On My Way will surprise any ear more accustomed to Ministry’s Psalm 69 or Neko Case’s “I Missed the Point” primarily because of his slow and sure way with songs of an intimate scale and progression.
If anything, Kweller reveals in conversation that the grandiosity of our generation’s rock scene is not his cup of tea. Though a bigger sound is what he’s after, he eschews ProTools and emphasizes: “I’m going to record on tape.”
Thankfully, his intentions are those of a Doug Martsch (of Built to Spill semi-fame) as opposed to a Phil Spector, the belligerent dilettante who ruined both the Ronettes and the Beatles’ Let It Be.
Though his heretofore unparalleled modern-pop craftsmanship may seem to hearken back to those prosperous times of “Across the Universe,” Kweller’s tight lyrical phrasings and rhythms are on par with those of Tom Petty, whose late ’80s work he admires.
Given the aforementioned dogged travel schedule, there is no irony in Ben’s pronouncement that
“I’m ready for a break. It’s been four years, I’m ready to take a few months off.”
Perhaps that much-needed rest will lead to the post-millennial Full Moon Fever. That is not too lofty of an expectation, considering that Kweller makes clear that he is “ready to make something layered and not hold back.”
Few can equal the achievement of one who has had Artist and Repertoire executives salivating since his teens, but Conor Oberst is one such individual who casts a shadow similar to that of Kweller. Both men craft epics on level with T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and assail the mind with a confluence of erudition and charm.
Both songsmiths are friends, and material passes freely between the pair.
“I can’t wait to hear his two records,” Kweller said. “He’s doing a country record and a Bright Eyes record — he’s got an amazing song that he played for me.”
While many young professionals sort through their grievances and their cubicles, these two tunesmiths have become postmodern music iconoclasts while still in their mid-twenties.
Opening slots are sometimes disdained by those chosen for them, but Kweller embraces his, saying that “It’ll be a different experience.”
With the understated and rough-edged scintillation of On My Way at hand, it stands to reason that Kweller’s set will impact the audience like an idling muscle car.
Those listening in will be awed and laid bare to pangs of respect that only newfound admirers can experience.
Kweller’s music is fraught with the same borderline impossibilities and contradictions as a cover of “Alison” that purports to be superior to Elvis Costello’s original: Fresh and raw, spry and worldly, breathlessly executed and portentous.
In all, his path from eager and precocious alternative scene-stealer to burgeoning superstar follows the internal logic of the title track from On My Way:
“He’s got spirit and heart … / He is up for anything. He can hang with anyone. / He still likes the things we used to think were fun.”