Restraining Bolt

Ben Lee
Something to Remember Me By
(Grand Royal)

Frankie Lymon was 13 when he peaked in 1955 with "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?". Two years later, his career stalled for good, and he was only 25 when he died from a heroin overdose. Lymon's an extreme example, but most teen idols squeak by as adults. Ask David Cassidy when he's not hosting 8-Track Flashback.

At 15, Ben Kweller, lead singer/guitarist of the Texas trio Radish, is still young enough to assume being a star is the only option that matters. On the strength of a three-song demo, Kweller signed a million-dollar-plus contract with Mercury, which just released the band's first album, Restraining Bolt. Kweller sounds frighteningly self-assured for someone in his midteens, but that's the catch, too: Bolt is a glib assimilation of 40 years of guitar rock, cunningly crafted and full of empty calories. Produced by Roger Greenawalt but remixed for indie cred by Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (who worked with Hole), Bolt is essentially power pop by a kid younger than MTV but savvy in the same smug, knowing way.

According to a recent profile in The New Yorker (yes, Kweller is that special!), two posters dominate his bedroom wall. One, of course, is of Kurt Cobain; the other, slightly larger, is of Weezer. Right there, you have the fundamental problem with Restraining Bolt. Kweller can imitate Cobain's guitar and even scream like him when it's called for, but really he's Rivers Cuomo in training. "Little Pink Stars" and "Simple Sincerity" are almost as catchy as "Buddy Holly" and "Undone--The Sweater Song," only not as deep.

When Kweller shrieks, "Whoa! No!," and bends his guitar strings 'til they almost break, he's not uncapping some deep well of frustration; he just heard others do the same thing and, hey, it sounded cool. The most convincing song here is "My Guitar," a cheesy mash note to his loyal Gibson, but the most intriguing is "Failing and Leaving," which hints at the trouble Kweller, who suffers from attention-deficit disorder, got into when he still attended public school. Kweller, you see, is a home-schooled guitar hero managed, until recently, by his wanna-be-rock-star dad, a doctor who moonlights as his son's roadie. Tell me this isn't a situation ripe for rock 'n' roll rebellion--but first Kweller needs to slow down for a moment and find his own voice. Otherwise, he'll have decades to relive his moment of glory over beers with Macaulay Culkin.

Australia's Ben Lee isn't much older than Kweller, only 18, but he knows youth can only take you so far. Something to Remember Me By is his fourth American release and his second solo album since Noise Addict (a band Lee dismisses now as "the perfect teenage rock thing") folded. Lee was Kweller's age when he made his American debut with Young and Jaded in 1994. It wasn't very good except for "I Wish I Was Him," a bit of hero worship built on a simple guitar strum and little-boy wistfulness.

Heard today, the song sounds more durable than the object of Lee's affection, alterna-hunk Evan Dando, because the impulse is both universal and touchingly misguided (as anyone who has kept track of Dando during his recent lost years can attest). The shy, determined kid who sang it is barely visible on Something to Remember Me By, and that's fitting because three years is a lifetime when you're Lee's age. More so than 1995's largely acoustic Grandpa Would, Something is sadder, softer and wiser than you have any right to expect from someone who has completed secondary school.

Produced by Brad Wood (Liz Phair), the album never rocks harder than the midtempo groove of its opening track, "How to Survive a Broken Heart," but its real punch comes from its consistently sharp jolt of emotion. "I don't mind the sting of feeling," Lee sings at one point, "but it burns when I'm empty." Fortunately, the sting is there on all 16 songs, whether Lee's trying to understand why his sisters don't like each other or wondering how come the thrill is short-lived when a girl he loved at 8 reappears in his life at 17. He's not tackling subjects that are new--there are songs about romantic guilt, dying too soon, and self-doubt--but his graceful melodies and gently insistent guitar make them undeniable.

Even when he's expressing joy, Lee sounds like he can't quite escape sadness. "Grammercy Park Hotel" is about staying up late and playing music with a couple of friends. "It's 3 a.m. in New York," he sings, "it's the time of my life," and clearly he means every word--but you know, and he does, too, that it was all over by 4 or 5. Even at his cheapest, Lee refuses to let himself off the hook. "Household Name" is about '80s sitcom stars who've become pop-culture casualties; it narrowly escapes being a dumb smirk because Lee gives it more: "You're never quite so cute/And I should know/Once puberty takes its toll." It's a tough lesson to swallow, but Lee accepts that the march of time is unavoidable. With luck, so will Kweller.

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