Simple arpeggiated chords open Opportunity Cost, the latest release by Asheville’s Angi West. The form is familiar — perhaps the most familiar, fundamental building block of modern songs — but the sound is a little disorienting. It’s one you’re more likely to hear on a classic video game than as the prefix to West’s soft, Southern drawl.
But West makes kitschy cool, and soon the reverb-drenched triangle wave characteristic of practice pianos and their many gaudy voices becomes the backdrop to a ‘60s anthem in the same vein as Simon & Garfunkel, a sort of musical bildungsroman where West learns to let go of a failed relationship.
Well, that’s one side of the story. Opportunity Cost is a collection of songs about songs, simple only on the surface, that give way to what this deliberated, workshop-travelled songwriter is really thinking about. On one side, “boot” is a story about another mutual disappointment. On the other, it’s about West’s internal struggle to meet the expectations of a songwriter — the pressure to turn every trauma into a cathartic radio hit.
“And the red light from the open sign had already started writing this song,” West sings, as if every visual cue from the scene of her breakup had some emblematic importance. Even the chorus seems to ask — did I miss something? Do I have to revisit this damned bar anymore? “They instruct you to write these songs / By describing what you see.”
For all of the heartache, sometimes cryptic and ethereal mourning of love lost on Opportunity Cost, there are points where West is downright pithy and almost uncanny in self-awareness.
“It’s not that I hate men,” West sings on the third track, “condemnation,” a dark, string-driven march. “It’s that I’m not sure I can trust them/And I’m not convinced that my own heart/Won’t shift in the act and fall apart.”
The odd piano intro is only the first of several new instrumental choices for West. Seth Kauffman of Floating Action is responsible for moving West away from just the keyboard — his input as producer brings in strings, organs, drum pads and a lo-fi recording aesthetic to boot.
It’s most noticeable on “aggregate” — West’s harmonium opens the track with the droning undertones of a bagpipe funeral dirge. West delves into reincarnation and Celtic spirituality — “I died as a mineral and then became a plant” — as strings swoop in an odd key and the listener is briefly transported to another musical world.
If not her intellect or witty lyrics, it’s West’s brief swoops into her falsetto that will win you over. From the clipped croons of “love has the last word” to the muddy but quirky “gay penguin” (a hidden track at the end of the album), West has the range and confidence of a ‘50s pop singer, but the throatiness famous to Southern voices.
The album’s cover puts West and Kaufman on a plot of “making something of yourself” versus “making music,” representing the economic idea of a production possibility frontier — saying that there are limits to what you can make, so to achieve efficiency, you have to decide what combination of which goods to produce.
Kauffman is placed conspicuously on the edge of the curve, the production possibility frontier itself — if the songwriter and producer were economies, Kauffman would be producing the most efficiently, striking a balance between the two apparently incompatible ideas of being successful and making music.
But West has placed herself inside the curve — a perhaps surprising admission that this gifted singer isn’t using her resources efficiently, and at that, spending only 20 percent on making music.
Opportunity Cost is the product of a relaxed, week-long foray into a new, experimental and multi-instrumented frontier for West. With her catchy choruses and lyrical prowess, maybe it’s time for West to reconsider her opportunity cost — what was foregone to achieve something else — and move to the other end of the curve.