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My 15 (+1) Favorite Songs of 2009: 9. Ben Kweller, “Old Hat” (2009).

9. Ben Kweller, “Old Hat”

Official website.
– From the 2009 album Changing Horses.

Surely Ben Kweller had been threatening to do this from the start. For almost every power-pop slacker anthem he writes, particularly on his first solo album after the Radish days, Sha Sha, there was an unabashed bid for piano-based singer-songwriter greatness, placing him in the company of people of contemporaries like Ben Folds (which he would later collaborate with, along with another Ben (Lee) in 2003). But there’d also be one or two country/folk tracks that would seem suspiciously out of place, like “Family Tree” or “On My Way”, almost as if Kweller was winking at his listeners and nudging them with a flannel-covered elbow.

His 2009 album Changing Horses – as if the title didn’t holler the fact out loud enough – makes good on that wink and nudge; any closer to country and this would be his Tumbleweed Connection. (It’s probably because he’s moved back to Texas; I guess the 78704 zip code brings out good things in people.)

“Old Hat” is the standout track for me – an achingly beautiful ballad, where the central metaphor (an old hat) is a little shopworn but comfortable, and it works. The live footage on YouTube doesn’t quite do justice to the song – you’re missing out on a lovely pedal steel guitar solo by Kitt Kittermann – but check out this love letter of a song, which begins “Hello, sweet friend of mine” and ends with:

My tornado, love, tore it all down
Now I’m face down in all this muddy guilt
You know I wanna make you smile again
Warm your heart again like an old worn out quilt

Now listen
I’ll be your glove, I’ll be your scarf, I’ll be the cross that covers your heart
But I don’t want you to get tired of me honey after such a good start

I never want to be the old hat you put on your pretty head

Perhaps there’s something liberating in writing in the country genre; there’s a plainspokenness in country lyrics (and by extension, Kweller’s new album) that renders emotional truth less opaque than anything by emo bands out there. But there’s something about his yearning delivery that belies his words: you know in the end he’d settle for old-hat status for this girl anyway.

—–

The rest of the list so far:

10. Ida Maria, “Oh My God” (2007)
11. Anna Fermin’s Trigger Gospel, “How Do You Judge Me” (2003)
12. The Phenomenal Handclap Band, “15 to 20” (2009)
13. Speech Debelle, “The Key” (2009)
14. ComaR, “I Want You D.A.N.C.E.” (2008)
15. Michael Jackson, “Happy” (1973)
16. Wonder Girls, “Nobody” (2008)

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