Often a reissue celebrates a classic album of years past. Through additional content, new remastering or expanded liner notes, the listener can put the original in perspective. It can be a reminder of just why we loved that album so much the first time around or take us to a special time in our own past. At other times, a reissue brings a forgotten album to light, revealing it as a lost treasure. Such is the case for Jimmy Webb’s Ten Easy Pieces, now Plus 4 courtesy the fine folks at DRG Records (DRG CD 5259). The album, originally released in 1996 on EMI’s now-defunct Guardian label, found Webb at a crossroads, both personally and professionally.
The ’60s discovered him as a wunderkind with one foot planted in Tin Pan Alley and another in the Brill Building, in other words, a songwriter capable of writing both timeless standards for the adults (the wise-beyond-his-years “Didn’t We,” quickly latched onto by Frank Sinatra) and buoyant anthems for the younger generation (The Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away”). The young tunesmith honed his craft as a rare Caucasian songwriter for Motown’s publishing arm Jobete, where he penned songs for The Supremes and Danny Day before the age of 20. (Webb liked the term “tunesmith” so much that he not only wrote a song around it, but also used it for the title of his guide to songwriting!) By 1967, aged 21, he’d already written “The Worst That Could Happen” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” the latter described by no less an eminence grise than Sinatra as the greatest torch song ever written. Further successes came, including three Grammy Awards in 1968 alone, and the creation of his opus, “MacArthur Park,” originally recorded by Richard Harris on his Webb-arranged and -produced album, A Tramp Shining.
Despite five Top Ten songs between 1966 and 1968 alone, with no signs of letting up (1969 was the year of Glen Campbell’s “Galveston,” continuing the partnership created with “Wichita Lineman” and “Phoenix”), Webb was seeking new directions. He grew his hair long, relocated to Laurel Canyon, and palled around with the likes of Harry Nilsson, who playfully chided him about the lack of humor in his songs (more on that later). Webb began to reinvent himself as a singer/songwriter beginning with 1970’s Words and Music, recorded for happening label Reprise, and introducing the song “P.F. Sloan.” The sound was rougher and less polished than those Campbell or Harris recordings, but Webb’s sensitivity and deep commitment to craft never subsided even as he gradually added colors to his palette. The lush orchestral pop sound now made way for country, folk and California rock. Despite the high quality of the songs, Webb’s solo albums didn’t strike a chord with listeners the way his earliest songs had. According to Ten Easy Pieces‘ producer Fred Mollin via Will Friedwald’s excellent liner notes for DRG’s reissue, Webb had less “street cred” than his singer/songwriter colleagues because he began his career writing songs for others. He unbelievably told Mollin of his most famous works, “Freddy, those songs killed me.”
Undeterred, Webb continued recording through the ’80s and early ’90s, totaling seven albums by 1993. (Five of them were collected in the out-of-print but indispensable 2004 Rhino Handmade box set The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress: Jimmy Webb in the Seventies.) Along the way, Webb collaborated with Michael Bennett, the director/choreographer of A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls, on two unproduced musicals, Scandal and The Children’s Crusade. While none of Webb’s scores have yet hit the Great White Way – Broadway’s loss, for certain – musicals had been on his mind since the ’60s, when he conceived one entitled His Own Dark City; another, Instant Intimacy, was developed three decades later by the Tennessee Repertory Theatre.
Mollin said that by 1996, Webb “was going through a very rough time…primarily from his divorce…[and] there were also some bad habits that were coming to hurt him, and there was some financial stress.” He presented the songwriter with the idea that became Ten Easy Pieces, and it was a simple if monumental one. He would do something he’d never done before: record his old hit songs as only he could. Mollin had to twist Webb’s arm to revisit those 1960s classics, but the end result was, at least in your humble reviewer’s opinion, what may be the definitive statement of the Jimmy Webb oeuvre. We explore Ten Easy Pieces Plus 4 after the jump!
Of course, none of these pieces really are easy, by any definition. The song cycle begins with Webb reinventing “Galveston.” Wonderful though Glen Campbell’s recording is, its upbeat arrangement and killer pop production may have obscured the meaning of the deeply anti-war lyric; there was nothing hidden in Webb’s dark, even painfully raw reading here, with only subtle background vocals from old friend Michael McDonald and accordionist Steve McKinnon complementing Webb’s piano and voice. The remaining nine selections combine to become a master class on songwriting. The mystical “Highwayman” is brought down-to-earth in the first of three piano-and-one-voice-only selections, though the production is consistently spare throughout. “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” never a hit song but now a standard recorded by everybody from Linda Ronstadt to Michael Feinstein, takes its rightful place alongside the more familiar compositions. The only other non-hit song on the album is “If These Walls Could Speak,” originally recorded by Glen Campbell, arguably Webb’s most successful muse. Marc Cohn lends gentle vocal support to this lovely rumination.
“Didn’t We,” with Shawn Colvin contributing background vocals, still ranks among Webb’s finest, most rueful lyric poetry: “This time, we almost made our poem rhyme…” The sadness inherent in “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” or “Wichita Lineman” is at the fore, and experiencing these songs sung by their composer is akin to hearing them for the first time. Webb the singer fares as well as Webb the songwriter, and he saves the best for last with “MacArthur Park.” It may be among the most misunderstood songs of all time thanks to its controversial lines, “Someone left the cake out in the rain/And I don’t think that I can take it ’cause it took so long to bake it/And I’ll never have that recipe again” and so on. But “MacArthur Park,” stripped of its neo-classical orchestral grandeur, is affirmed as an aching, poignant lament of love lost. Thanks to Donna Summer’s chart-topping disco version, and the radio airplay of Harris’ original which continues on oldies stations today, it’s easy to forget just how audacious this song was, and is. Powerfully sung and played by its composer, it’s a fitting, majestic conclusion to the original Ten Easy Pieces album.
DRG has expanded Ten Easy Pieces with four selections from Webb’s 2007 concert CD, Live and at Large (Jimmy Webb Music Company, no cat. no.), which was released only through the artist’s official website and may consequently be difficult to obtain. These tracks were all recorded in the U.K. and bring Webb’s story up to date: the expansive art song “Paul Gauguin in the South Seas,” “Time Flies” and “No Signs of Age” were all recorded by their author on his 2005 solo set, Twilight of the Renegades (Sanctuary SANCD359). The fourth song in this mini-set is the lighthearted “Campo de Encino,” inspired by Harry Nilsson; that iconoclast’s version was unearthed for the expanded edition of Son of Schmilsson (RCA/Legacy CD 82876 78249-2). Some of Webb’s commentary from the stage is present, and as anybody who has seen him in concert knows, he’s an engaging raconteur with many a tale to tell. He tells of the inspirations behind the title of Renegades, late friends like Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Richard Harris and even Rosemary Clooney, who affectingly sang “Time Flies” on an episode of E.R. As these tracks also feature Webb accompanied by his own solo piano, they are of a piece with the rest of the album, set apart only by the presence of an audience and the spoken introductions.
In the years since Ten Easy Pieces, Jimmy Webb has remained prolific. He has released three more solo albums: Renegades, Live and at Large, and this year’s country-inflected, soulful Just Across the River, on which he was joined by famous friends like Willie Nelson, Billy Joel and Jackson Browne on a wide swath of his songs. He also collaborated with his sons, The Webb Brothers, on 2009’s rootsy Cottonwood Farm., and produced one album for musical authority and concert star Michael Feinstein, 2003’s Only One Life. On this gorgeous album, Feinstein is joined by Webb on piano for a collection of some of the overlooked gems in Webb’s catalogue, and a couple of familiar ones, too, including “Up, Up and Away” deftly reimagined as a sensual ballad. On this album, “Belmont Avenue” is introduced, from a still-unproduced musical adaptation of A Bronx Tale. If the rest of the score is half as evocative as this one song, audiences would be very lucky indeed to see it onstage.
It’s clear that Jimmy Webb has in recent years become at ease with his legacy, performing in concert halls, cabarets and nightclubs around the world, celebrating those old classics comfortably alongside new work. For reconnecting him to this material, we can be grateful for Ten Easy Pieces. But this handsome reissue (produced by DRG’s Hugh Fordin, annotated by the redoubtable Will Friedwald of The Wall Street Journal and mastered by Alan Silverman) proves that the album stands on its own as a formidable accomplishment by one of America’s best songwriters, then and now. Those who own the original issue should know that this reissue drops the printed lyrics from the booklet; for that reason alone (and its different note from the artist), it might be worth keeping the original CD even after “upgrading.” Listeners are also encouraged to seek out Fred Mollin’s other two volumes which followed a similar template: Kris Kristofferson’s The Austin Sessions (Atlantic, 1999) and Barry Mann’s Soul and Inspiration (Atlantic, 2000). I’ll leave the final, apt words to Webb, from his new note published as preface to Friedwald’s lengthy essay: “After all it’s just a record, right? But this one was made out of love and thin air and the listeners can feel that…it has helped them deal with crisis. To them, there is a little bit of magic in that little plastic box.”