The Cost of Living
( 11 Records, 2008 )
Unslushed because: Webley is based out of Seattle, and I was curious what kind of music is coming out of there now. Lyric book looked promising. Band picture featured members playing accordion, viola, and upright bass (and some wise guy, presumably the drummer, holding a shovel). A variety of other listed instruments — guitars and drums, but also guitarron, trombone, marimba, glockenspiel — added to the intrigue.
Factors not initially considered: Webley’s been doing this for quite a while, looks to be something of a local hero (Jesus! 30,854 friends on MySpace!), and just got back from a tour of impressively far-flung lands including Russia, Eastern Europe, and the UK. Plus there’s some YouTube footage of him playing in Mexico (unless it’s just a club called Mexico). Lucky.
On further review: The opening number, “Still,” toes the singer-songwriter line until it explodes into a passionate string arrangement—and not smarmy overproduced strings, but a handful of violins and violas invoking something much more powerful for its intimacy. Things really get grand with track 2, “Ways to Love.” Like many of the songs that follow, it starts slowly, achingly, then springs into a bittersweet but rocking folk-punk with an Eastern European influence: in my imagination, as if you dropped a 1-4-5 bar band into a tavern on a winding road a little outside Ceske Budejovice.
There are Arcade Fire and Neutral Milk leanings here, which I’m sure Webley is sick of hearing about, but there’s also a hint of Leonard Cohen in more guttural numbers like “They Just Want”—although Webley is, unlike Cohen, an immensely extroverted singer. He whoops and growls and whispers, and I have no doubt that at some of those clubs in Russia, the guy didn’t even need a mic. I can only imagine what the dramatic “Meet Your Bride” sounds like live. People must just lose it.
The danger area is when Webley’s antics verge on histrionics. In concert he may be charismatic enough to pull it off, but on record he sometimes pushes his intense musical personality a little too far to the fore. Sometimes that impulse propels the song, but sometimes, as on the album-closing “There’s Not a Step We Can Take That Does Not Bring Us Closer,” it overwhelms it. Tellingly, this disc’s most triumphant moments—and there are many of them—come not in mid-Webley freak-out, but in the gorgeous, dynamic instrumental arrangements that both feed and build off his freak-outs. Then it’s a true ensemble, not just a front man; then it’s something that you want to sing along with too, with all your might.