Kweller embraces his country side

Ben Kweller
“Changing Horses”
4.5 stars out of 5

Ben Kweller, always the critical darling, seemed to be on the verge of a mainstream hit after his previous record of slickly produced pop hooks, but he seems to have chosen a different route. Kweller has always had a bit of country in his songs, but he embraces it completely on his latest effort, an album of acoustic country, honky-tonk and pedal steel guitars.

The style fits the characteristic charm of his songwriting, and the end result is a likable batch of songs deliberately crafted to warm up to you rather than hit you over the head. The standard lovelorn ballads and peppy pop tunes are here, and as an added bonus, there’s “Sawdust Man,” which finds him working in latter-day Beatles territory on the album’s standout track.

At first, the stylistic shift seems to be an odd choice, but hearing him croon love songs in front of a three-man backing band, it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else. It’s difficult to say which version of Kweller will be more appealing, but for the moment, this is a welcome change.

Key Tracks: “Fight,” “Sawdust Man”

K’Naan
“Troubadour”
4 stars out of 5

For those alarmed at the path mainstream hip hop is heading down, there have been a fair amount of strong alternative offerings from the genre in recent months, several of them even through major labels. Kanaan Warsame, or just K’Naan for stage name purposes, is one example.

A native of Somalia, K’Naan immigrated to New York City at 13 and learned English partially through old school hip hop records. On “Troubadour,” his third release, Warsame sounds as if he has little left to learn, crafting a triumphant, genre-bending record that calls upon reggae and rock almost as much hip hop. Check out lead single “If Rap Gets Jealous” for a quick primer on this. It guests Kirk Hammett. Yes, the same Kirk Hammett who plays guitar in Metallica.

The likes of Damian Marley and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine also lend a hand, though the record seldom gets too disjointed or reliant on guest stars to carry the load. K’Naan has shown he is capable of filling the role of a charismatic, socially-conscious MC who hasn’t forgotten his African roots. While it’s doubtful the masses will catch on anytime soon, “Troubadour” stands as one of hip hop’s most impressive efforts in the early stages of 2009.

Key Tracks: “ABC’s,” “If Rap Gets Jealous,” “T.I.A.”