Having already made the transition from grunge wunderkind, Ben Kweller infuses his old-school indie-pop with a restless spirit that has yet to abate. His fourth solo album harnesses that energy and channels it into irony-free alt-country.
Though it fails to rise above the legion of whiskey-rasp entries in Ryan Adams’ discography, Horses proves Kweller to be an artist both versatile and attuned to the advantage of heart over heft. In the works for nearly a decade, the brief and mostly subdued collection deals with tried-and-timeless themes of ill-fated love, world-weary determination and personal journeys physical and spiritual.
Shades of Bob Dylan are readily apparent on the conflicted “Wantin’ Her Again,” while the upbeat “Fight” could easily be a lost track from Conor Oberst’s Mystic Valley Band sessions. There’s even a melancholy streak of Elliott Smith running through the stripped-down “Ballad of Wendy Baker,” making for an interesting juxtaposition with gee-ain’t-it-authentic pedal steel and Dobro peppering, not to mention the prevalence of such titles as “Gypsy Rose,” “Old Hat” and “Sawdust Man.” The latter is easily the best track of the dusty bunch, an improbable yet irresistible Elton John/bayou blues hybrid that is as much a rollicking boot-stomper as it is an endearing reminder that when voices crack from emotional outpouring, it only makes the song stronger.