The Weeds played their last show two Saturdays ago, in the small living room of a South Philly rowhome, surrounded by family and friends.
Some leaned against the walls with mugs of wine. Others sat cross-legged on the floor with their kids. Everyone was all smiles. Between songs, singer-guitarist Emily Zeitlyn thanked all the names she could think of.
Oddly, this intimate gathering was a hello as much as it was a goodbye, a final show that doubled as the release party for a record that took its sweet time getting here.
Though they’ve existed in one form or another for more than a decade, The Weeds managed a mere two albums, The Faraway Flying of Broken Beating, which came out in 2004, and a stunning new capstone, aptly titled What Was and Will Never Be.
This record is lovely, a warmly insistent collection of songs that ebbs and flows with tidal grace, its gentle opening lines gathering steam for pretty, mid-tempo rock ’n’ roll tempests. One minute we’re waltzing with the “The Dead” and the next we’re bobbing our heads with “Waitress.” And when the needle suddenly swings into the red on “You Finally Climbed the Hill,” well, it’s a gritty counterweight to all the simple, folk-pop beauty.
Zeitlyn has an ear for matching holy, Leonard Cohen-esque melodies with urgent, mysterious lyrics. “An eye for a limb and a tooth for a heart. It’s a terrible thing to mix vengeance and art,” she declares on “Forgiveness.”
“Religion” is a ghost story — or at least a horror story, unspooling with twisted tension: “You set the scene: It was after the night / that you said you were clean and you gave up the fight / in the car that was borrowed, gun that was swallowed / it took out your teeth as it shot through the marrow. You said you felt nothing. You walked to the neighbor’s.” Zeitlyn’s assured and plaintive tone performs extrasensory sorcery, making you imagine the feeling of cold steel on enamel.
Perhaps the most remarkable song from the new batch is “Smarty Jones,” which tangles up this city’s underdog reputation with the real-life story of the eponymous undersized horse and adopted Philadelphian who came within a breath of winning the Triple Crown in 2004. It’s a passionate meditation on winning and losing. “You little runt,” she marvels breathily. “How’d you get to be out front?”
The story of this album, and this band, is more of a steeplechase than a horse race. Not everybody made it to the release show.
In a general sense, it’s a sad old familiar song for a working band: too little money, too many obstacles. For The Weeds, it’s sadder still. When you ask Zeitlyn what caused all the delays, she sums it up in one word: “Life.”
The basic tracks on What Was and Will Never Be were recorded down the Shore at a place called Scullville Studios back in 2007. Bassist Devin Greenwood manned the soundboard.
“Scullville was in a compound of low-lying buildings on a country road near the Shore, and it felt very remote,” recalls Zeitlyn. “It was practically sinking into a marsh and smelled of saltwater.”
The band — Greenwood and Zeitlyn plus guitarist Colin Boylan and drummer Bobby Wolter — recorded everything live. Between takes, they’d watch Curb Your Enthusiasm while Wolter, who had cystic fibrosis, self-administered his treatments. This involved “wearing a crazy, sci-fi-looking vibrating vest and breathing through an industrial-strength nebulizer,” says Zeitlyn.
“We laughed a lot that week. I coated my fingers with crazy glue when my calluses fell off. It was the first time I was away from my 1-year-old son for longer than a few hours,” she remembers. “After that, we each went back to our lives, scraping together livings, full-time mothering, producing music for people that paid and playing shows once in a while.”
The unfinished tracks, meanwhile, made progress only when Zeitlyn found time to lay down some vocals at Greenwood’s home studio.
Momentum picked up a bit one night in January 2009 when The Weeds threw a fundraiser/concert at Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens.
“When I turned around to look at Bobby at the end of the night, he looked happier and more exhausted than I had ever seen him. Pale, but grinning ear to ear,” Zeitlyn remembers. The proceeds from the show covered the cost of recording the strings and horns that would help give this moody rock album a more lush and layered sound.
Soon, however, everyone went their separate ways, and again the album was put on hold.
That summer, Zeitlyn made plans with Wolter, who’d recently been in and out of hospitals, to get together and catch up. But he hadn’t been feeling well and called that morning to cancel.
“He died the next day,” she recalls. “His lungs had given out.”
At that house show two weeks ago, Zeitlyn fought off tears at the microphone to toast the memory of her fallen friend and bandmate. She smiled when she recalled his love for dirty jokes. The album, for sale in the kitchen, praised Wolter’s kindness and drumming skills in the liner notes.
After Wolter died, life pulled the remaining Weeds in different directions. Greenwood, for example, moved to Brooklyn to open a recording studio called Honey Jar.
“By now [the album] was feeling like an albatross. A monster. Unfinishable. It kept me awake at night,” recalls Zeitlyn. But like all monsters, it had to be confronted.