Only Way Home is the third offering by Milwaukee-based rootsy folk-Americana duo Barb & Tom Webber. Their first two recordings, 2000s Traveler's Lullaby and 2002's Indigo Sky, were stripped down affairs, offering songs that expressed life's experiences and an unwavering optimism even in the face of adversity. They laid out an entrée into dialogue with listeners based on those tropes. On Only Way Home -- despite the rather somber cover -- optimism is replaced by a kind of tenacious hope. And while it's true that the pair's music (played exquisitely by their backing band Fair Webber) doesn't wander all that far from the road that has endeared them to so many in their region, they've stretched themselves musically by entering deeper into its various strains, and have spent some time in Nashville working with producer Tim Lorsch and a host of Music City's finest working studio players.
Amid the acoustic guitars, organic percussion, and rudimentary basslines are new textures provided by the Nash Vegas crew (which includes the incomparable multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin on accordion). Electric pianos, French horn, violin, mandolin, banjo, mandocello, and a B-3 soundalike all work to create a mix so balanced it's perfect. There is a kind of warmth in this sound that's immediate and front room more than back porch. Longtime musical collaborator and Pittsburgh guitar ace Gregg Lindsay makes a couple of appearances here, but he's not as prevalent as he was on earlier records; Dave Francis is an excellent guitarist, though, and the band sounds tighter than ever. Lindsay just has a very original voice on the instrument, and his sound was so prevalent on Traveler's Lullaby that it's hard not to miss him.
The biggest change here, however, is in the fineness and precision of Barb Webber's songwriting. While there isn't a radical departure from her earlier work, there is a deepening and widening embrace of the various strains of American folk, country, and, in a sense, music from a previous century, all while remaining contemporary. The gentle folk-rock groove of the opener, "Cock-Eyed Grin" with lead vocals by Tom, strolls and swings with a rock & roll backbeat, but the space between organ and acoustic piano rides just under the acoustic guitars and the muted drums. It's breezy and forward -- flowing as Tom's embracing of Barb's words becomes an articulation of a voice heard in the American not-quite-unconscious that makes a stance in the chaos that is everyday life. It's followed by a sprightly old-timey country-dance tune called "Lily Marlene" about a mannequin in a Wisconsin Northwoods resort window. It's drenched in mandolins, fiddles, shuffling percussion, while Barb's voice, plaintive and true, gives the track its square dance feel. It's a bit startling considering the opener, but it works because the music is without pretension to be anything other than what it is.
Another surprise is a cover of the BoDeans (fellow Wisconsinites) "Still the Night." The original was featured on Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, with a redo on Joe Dirt Car, and it was used in the film The Color of Money by Martin Scorsese. In other words, it's a pop song with history. The band strips it back to the bone and makes it its own. The rhythm in the track, which was a basic rock shuffle, is transformed here in a sense by the way the tune is decorated with the Rhodes piano and some nice hand percussion, and the duet vocals between Tom and Barb make the song a real call and response exchange. And while the track has no rock & roll potential, it does have a certain rootsy calypso flair in the way the rhythm track is articulated. It's really a highlight on the set. It's so obvious that this pair doesn't care a bit about contemporary music. Their sound, while "modern" is sewn from eras that are all but forgotten in the present. Check the funny yet corn pone waltz "Two Rights Make a Wrong." The words reflect the conflicts in a modern marriage, but the feeling is George and Tammy singing one of their notorious duets in a small town talent show. (Makes sense, Tom is originally from some strange place called Borger, Texas; yet Brett Kemnitz wrote it!) The French horn and acoustic guitar that introduce "Peace Will Reign" is haunting, the sparse percussion and electric piano hanging about the backdrop, and Barb's plea for tolerance from all sides offers a different and perhaps truer slant on the protest songs of the mid-'60s. But you can actually picture a young Joan Baez singing it. Another airy gospel-tinged rocker called "Busy Day," with a nice touch on the honky tonk piano, follows it seamlessly. The lyrics are rooted in the same kind of harrowing seriousness, but the tempo and open melody offer it without didacticism. Indeed, in "Busy Day" the struggles of the everyday are offered in a mirror image that reflects a God that is perhaps overworked -- meaning, ultimately, that if the people suffer, so does God: Tom growls: "...Now we are fighting over who God loves best/Makes me wonder if God needs a rest..." The true highlight on this set is the through a glass darkly "Skeletons in the Closet," that is harrowing, razor sharp, and spot on in its detailed observations of the jagged edge of brokenness in families that we read about in newspapers. It asks questions whose answers are left for the listener to ponder.
Only Way Home is the true next step for this pair and their band as they stretch out musically and Barb Webber does so lyrically. Some of this record is confounding: corny humor is juxtaposed against very real darkness (which is more topical and repertorial, from the experiential realm rather than simply first-person confessional, thank goodness, since we already have plenty of that) and that's what makes hope possible, even if optimism is useless -- just like living everyday. Somebody smarter than most of us once said: "Who hopes for what he already has?" And perhaps that's one of the unconscious themes of this fine record. It's one of many: most of them are worth more than simple consideration.