JIMMY WEBB El Mirage (East West Japan/Atlantic)
Having only previously experienced the genius of Jimmy Webb tangentially via Art Garfunkels Watermark album, which he wrote the bulk of, the full-strength experience comes as something of a shock. With its crystalline arrangement, swooping, cinematic string and horn charts and time-travelling storyline, The Highwayman - later adopted as a theme tune by the eponymous Johnny Cash/Waylon Jennings/Kris Kristofferson/Willie Nelson supergroup project is heady stuff. Perhaps such vaulting ambition is only to be expected from an album dedicated to Ramblin Jack Elliott, Kurt Vonnegut and Timothy Leary.
If You See Me Getting Smaller Im Leaving immediately ups the already not inconsiderable ante. With its million dollar chorus and deliciously tactile hand-clappin outro I cant listen to it without grinning precision-drilled feelgood AOR at its absolute zenith. Waylon Jennings, again, sneaked his version into the racks a month ahead of the composers on his Ol Waylon album, somewhat obscuring the identity of the Willie to whom the song is directed, and its tales of A madman full of beer/A four piece band and a charter bus/My borderline career.
Not all of El Mirage ascends to such staggering heights it would make for an almost unbearably brilliant 40 minutes if it did. Mixed-Up Guy drops the baton, only George Martins exquisitely polished production separating it from, say, a David Soul track. However, like all of El Mirage, its a sonic delight this Japanese CD simply doesnt sound like it was sourced from 28-year old tapes. The inevitable crush of West coast session talent also contributes, alongside Kenny Loggins, a pair of Little Feat and Elton Johns rhythm section. A tinkling music box opens the staggering Christiaan No, a paternal indulgence inspired by the once and future Webb Brother. Marvel again at Jimmys creamy, velveteen voice, rich, warm and expressive as it darts and leaps.
Sugarbird is jaunty froth, as disposable as its title suggests, and Moment In A Shadow is a maudlin wallow, something he does with far greater Úlan on Where The Universes Are, undercurrents of darkness and despair surging beneath its ever-immaculate surface. P.F. Sloan is irresistible, glossy meta-nostalgia, the composers first released version of a song originally donated to The Association. Similarly, the twinkling majesty if The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress previously saw service on albums by Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker and Judy Collins. The space muzak of Skylark (A Meditation) seems rather unnecessarily tagged on at the albums end - surely half the potential greatness of a Jimmy Webb song lies in the lyrics, immediately rendering a Jimmy Webb instrumental a thing of diminished interest. Nevertheless, despite its uneven nature, the troughs of El Mirage throw its Olympian peaks into even sharper relief.
JIMMY WEBB Archive + Live (Warner Special Marketin
A repackaging of the 1993 Archive compilation, Archive + Live adds, as if you couldnt guess, a live disc of recordings made in London in April 1972.
The bright, shiny but resonant pop music of opener P. F. Sloan recalls Webbs compositions for the likes of The Fifth Dimension, its indictment of hipsters given some spine by the hoarse frosting atop his vocals. Its quirkily arranged, with a nagging chorus and unconventional subject. Webb failed to heed his own advice - Dont sing this song/It belongs to P. F. Sloan/From now on revisiting it on his 1977 masterpiece El Mirage. Love Song falls prey to Webbs tendency towards verbose sentimentality well, if its going to happen anywhere, its going to happen on something called Love Song. Given that one of the main attractions of a Jimmy Webb album is the songwriting, the triptych of covers that is Three Songs (melding together Let It Be Me, Never My Love and I Wanna Be Free) might seem a bit redundant. Admittedly initial impressions are of the kind of nostalgic medley often found at the close of Carpenters albums, but this is a slimmer, more artfully entwined fusion. Like much of Webbs work, Met Her On A Plane never settles for the obvious: sumptuous AOR it may be, but it never slips its grip on intelligence.
All My Loves Laughter may be familiar from Art Garfunkels lovely Watermark album (itself almost entirely a Webb portfolio); Jimmyll never have Arts choirboy purity but he chews through the words gamely enough. The intended creamy romance of One Lady is rather curdled by its stinging electric guitar solo. The entirety of the first minute of Webbs own version of Galveston is consumed by Fred Tacketts slashing, one-note acoustic guitar work, demonstrating exactly how much he cared about airplay. The jaded LA ennui of Once In The Morning demonstrates a Randy Newman-esque sardonicism, and When Can Brown Begin, written in response to a Sammy Davis Jr. challenge, was never going to heal a riven nation but its a helluva lot more eloquent than Ebony And Ivory. Piano is a tender ballad about a boys love for the eponymous instrument, somewhat undone by the unseemly barroom jangle emitted by the joanna deployed on this recording. George Martins staggering Technicolor arrangement sends The Highwayman into orbit: yes, its mired in excess, but it works. Yet Christiaan No tops it immediately, a tinkling, twinkling ode to the power of positive parenting. Its a shame that, for my money the El Mirage albums towering peak, If You See Me Getting Smaller Im Leaving, is absent here: I would have happily swapped Where The Universes Are a song Webb admits writing for Ringo for it. Rather more fully-formed is The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, already recorded by Joe Cocker, Glen Campbell and Judy Collins ahead of its authors reading. Couched in metaphor, Webb says in his too-brief booklet annotation Yes its about a real person and yes she was unattainable.
Due to a bizarre anti-chronological contrivance, the disc closes with selections from Jimmys previous album, 1974s Lands End. Feet In The Sunshine is predictably sunshine pop, with Joni Mitchell very apparent on backing vocals, but it treads (hah!) on the toes of The Beach Boys earlier Take A Load Off Your Feet. His conscious attempt to emulate Youve Lost That Lovin Feelin, Just This One Time scales the side of the 70s power ballad without ever really reaching the summit: the sweat and craft are there, but the tune seems to have been left behind at base camp. Crying In My Sleep is almost comically overwrought and self-pitying, but if you can suppress the urge to giggle its a work of wonder, although one thats outdone by Garfunkels smoother, lighter reading. The closing Lands End/Asleep On The Wind sprawls over nine minutes, half of which is consumed by a turbulent orchestral overture that catches Webb at his most bombastic. All is instantly forgiven and forgotten with the poetic promise of the opening lines Love is a glass of wine/Its balanced on the siderail of a ship and, with giant drums thwacking and reverberating across the soundstage amidst great craggy gobs of celestial melody, its as if the destination aimed for with Just This One Time has finally been attained.
The problem with assembling a comprehensive overview of Jimmy Webbs career is that many of his most famous compositions never appeared on any of his albums, which is where the second disc comes in. Subtitled Live At The Royal Albert Hall, even though almost half the 17 performances were recorded in Barking, it opens with more of that darn orchestral flatulence, the Royal Philharmonic hacking and sawing through a lumpen melange of the melodies Webb may or may not be about to play. Sleepin In The Daytime sounds like a slightly uncomfortable synthesis: Webbs backing trio provide unkempt but elastic rock, and the orchestra splurge all over the spaces. The epic MacArthur Park was later appropriated by the Wu-Tang Clan (why, are you going to stop them?!) in all its cake-as-relationship-metaphor gooeyness. Wichita Lineman is so good he plays it twice: at the close of the first, instrumental rendition Webb says If you didnt know that youre to be excused because I forgot to sing on that one! My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama is introduced as one of Frank Zappas more tender ballads (which, with delicious irony, Webb plays on piano) and with the orchestra away on a union-negotiated tea break the band are allowed to get funky unfettered. Pocketfull Of Keys takes a keyring as a map of emotional desolation; with just Webb and his piano, its one of the discs highlights. Equally solo and unaffected, When Can Brown Begin and Song For My Brother (later covered by Art Garfunkel as Wooden Planes) are the stripped-down essence of a singer/songwriter. In Jerusalem Los Angeles steels itself for a holy smiting (a rejected entry to a songwriting competition run by the citys mayor!), Galvaston (sic) reveals its Vietnam roots and Piano is played on a rather better maintained instrument than that used on the studio version. Finally theres that long-delayed vocal performance of Wichita Lineman, and if its not the greatest rendition ever for me Glen Campbell and R.E.M. have both bettered it - it remains a masterclass in wistful longing.
For too long Jimmy Webbs 70s output has only been available in the form of a ruinously expensive Rhino Handmade box set, although Im delighted to learn that the individual albums are being reissued practically as I type. As a primer of what youve been missing, as brilliant as it can be frustrating, Archive + Live does an admirable job.