Faye Webster Breaks Her Own Conventions on 'Underdressed at the Symphony'

BY Megan LaPierrePublished Feb 28, 2024


Faye Webster’s delivery of the titular line on her last album, 2021’s I Know I’m Funny haha, is a sparkling, sardonic moment couched between a verse and chorus; a knife twist that, ever so subtly, shifts the entire framing of a sun-bleached song about the community trappings of a relationship — landlords, neighbours, family members — into one brimming with self-assurance and quiet confidence.

On Underdressed at the Symphony, the line where the record draws its names arrives in perhaps the most polar opposite context: the pristine penultimate track on the album, with Webster swimming in doubt as she reels from a breakup. “I’m underdressed at the symphony,” she sings with her signature pouty resonance, inflecting downward into a brief pause — followed by an overblown orchestral flourish bursting with Disney-film strings, “Crying to the songs / That you put me on.”

In a lot of ways, the oscillation between these states of wandering inquisitiveness and hard-won certainty are at the core of any Faye Webster record, and Underdressed at the Symphony is no exception. Webster knows what she does (the twangy, sidling “Wanna Quit All the Time”), who she is (the meandering, playful “eBay Purchase History”), what she wants and kind of needs (the start-stop lurch of “Lego Ring”) and how she feels (the chirrup of “Feeling Good Today”).

These two latter states of assurance are paired with successive semi-awkward experiments in autotune that are less about offsetting their earnestness than poking holes in the authority of their sentiments. “The record feels like a mouthful to me,” the singer-songwriter observed in press notes while remarking that single “Lego Ring” — a collaboration with rapper-turned-psych-rocker (and elementary school pal) Lil Yachty — was her chance for levity amid a collection forged around the heartbreaking title track.

And it’s true, these song say a lot. Singles like the swooning, timeless “Lifetime” and lush, jaunty “But Not Kiss” — as well as the sprawling, pétillant bass-walk of album opener “Thinking About You” — all luxuriate in stretching their minimal words into five or six-minute run-times more often than not. Webster is an economist with her words, but still manages to paint a picture of who she is and her inner life with unexpected, quirky vignettes.

She matches these with a newfound dynamism of tempo on Underdressed at the Symphony, better reflecting the seasick motions of life’s ups and downs. But even when the arrangements feel jammy and improvisational there’s a meticulousness to the way each track is layered, the mix mimicking how the instruments would be mic’ed up and equalized in a live setting, often getting individual moments to shine in a solo or winding outro before they meet each other in rest. Even when Webster shrugs off digging her heels in lyrically in the name of a hearty “Yeah!” or other syllabic, mantric repetition, the conversation between the melodic and harmonic lines never falls flat.

The cheekily titled, rip-roaring romp “He Loves Me Yeah!” stands out as the most successful of Webster’s autotune trial-and-errors, feeling like a whirring affirmation meditation that gallops along with sharp-angled overdrive and blasts of distortion; a joyful tantrum of repetition until the disbelief dissipates. It calls back to one of the most memorable moments of the 2019 Atlanta Millionaires Club hit “Kingston” — the song that made me and many others fall in love with Webster — when she sings, “He said, ‘Baby,’” planting a cooing em-dash expansion of the clause in the middle of the line: “That’s what he called me!”

Listening to I Know I’m Funny haha and 2022’s orchestral Car Therapy Sessions EP, Underdressed at the Symphony is a natural progression for Webster in the best possible way: one that builds upon the frameworks she’s established and pushes them to their limits. Beyond the gooey saunters she’s become known for, she slows the tempo to near-standstills on multiple occasions, while likewise finding the most heart-racing BPMs of her career thus far. By virtue of this being a Faye Webster record, none of it feels jarring; it’s as intuitive as passing the time with someone you love.

(Secretly Canadian)

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