By Richie UnterbergerAfter he'd quickly established himself as one of the hottest and most commercial songwriters in pop in the late 1960s, it might have been expected that Jimmy Webb could have gone on to make hit singer-songwriter albums under his own name. Carole King was making a phenomenally successful transition between those roles at the same time, and if Randy Newman (who also started as a mostly-songwriter-only) wasn't selling anything on the order of the albums King was, he was at least attracting more critical raves than virtually any other artist of the early 1970s. But although Webb recorded several albums during that era for the most singer-songwriter-oriented label in the business, Reprise, his sales were so paltry as to make Newman's seem impressive. In part that might have been due to under-promotion, Reprise having more singer-songwriters on its roster at one time than it could reasonably hope to handle with universal effectiveness. But it was also due in large measure to the albums themselves, which were not nearly as commercial as the pop singles he'd written just a few years before, though they were more expressive of the personal concerns coming to the forefront of his art.
1970 debut, Words and Music
(also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice), must have surprised the
listeners who were intimately acquainted with his previous work. Its
eclectic mix of fairly tough rock, nods to gospel, and occasional
ballads was far less pop-oriented than the material he'd penned for the
likes of the Fifth Dimension and Glen Campbell. Too, the lyrics roved
through some unexpected areas, including environmentalism; jabs at
critics, Los Angeles, and the music business; hints of religious
fervor; and even a tribute to another young songwriter lion of the '60s
Southern California pop-rock scene, P.F. Sloan. Though it attracted
some positive critical notices, it bombed in the marketplace, failing
to make the charts at all. Do that these days for a major label, and
you'd probably be told not to let the door hit you on your behind on
the way out. Those were different times, though, and as hard has it
might be to fathom these days, not only was Webb allowed to record a
follow-up, but it was issued a mere six months or so later.
For the self-produced Words and Music, most of the instruments were played by either Webb or multi-instrumentalist Fred Tackett, with just a little vocal and instrumental help from a few friends. For And So: On, however, Jimmy would take a more conventional approach. Webb handled keyboards and Tackett was still the chief guitarist, but the other two guys who'd fill out Jimmy's road band in the early 1970s, drummer Ray Rich and bassist Skip Mosher (who also contributed sax and flute), took care of the rhythm section. Webb's sister Susan added backup vocals, as she'd done on Words and Music, with another auxiliary contributor to Words and Music (saxophonist Tom Scott) filling a similar position on And So: On. Some adventurous guest guitar was added by jazz star Larry Coryell, who played wah-wah on "See You Then" and backwards soloing on "Highpockets." There were also string arrangements, which had featured prominently on the hit covers of Webb's songs in the late 1960s, but which Jimmy had eschewed on Words and Music.
If the way And So: On was recorded was relatively conventional, the songs themselves, like those on Words and Music, were not. "All Night Show" is a storming rocker by Webb standards, somewhat bringing to mind how pop-identified singers like James Taylor and the Beach Boys could unexpectedly turn on the funk juice on occasions. (Those strange clinking noises you hear at the beginning, incidentally, were recorded off a pinball machine in Webb's house.) The anti-conformist "Highpockets" is given an edgy icing by Coryell's backwards guitar, and one wonders if Webb is lightly mocking his biggest hit in the baroque "Marionette," whose wet dress leads him to wonder if someone left her outside in the rain, rather like that cake in "MacArthur Park." "Laspitch" was a throwback of sorts to the narrative hit songs Jimmy penned for Richard Harris and Glen Campbell, but this is no sentimental feel-good number, instead painting a complex character sketch of a solid citizen harboring a secret love (as does, in an unusual twist, his wife). Again this boasts a far tenser production than those reared on Webb's smoother, more romantic '60s work might expect, with its spiky distorted guitars, pummeling rhythms, and ghostly siren-like backup vocals. Both "Laspitch" and "Highpockets," incidentally, were part of an unproduced musical Webb had tried to get off the ground, His Own Dark City.
Still, Webb's more mainstream romantic pop streak hadn't disappeared, as evidenced by ballads like "Met Her on a Plane," "One Lady," and "All My Love's Laughter" that placed him more in the laidback early-'70s singer-songwriter style. "Pocketful of Keys" was more in the observational approach that had characterized some of his earlier output, while "See You Then" had an unusual combination of sumptuous orchestration and Coryell's creative wah-wah licks. Yet, perhaps in part because of the unusual juxtaposition of relatively standard singer-songwriter fare and more unusual, daring material, And So: On wasn't easy to classify. Partially for that reason, it might have been hard to sell, either, failing to make the charts after its release in May 1971. Nor were artists rushing to cover even the more normal of the album's tunes. Expatriate Scott Walker (formerly of the Walker Brothers) did cover "If Ships Were Made to Sail" in the UK on his 1973 album Any Day Now, but it attracted little notice, Walker (rather like Webb) having lost much of his audience after shifting into darker and more personal directions.
At the same time Webb's albums were tanking, however, they were gaining critical plaudits. Trade journals Billboard and Cash Box gave the album good reviews, as did, less expectedly, Rolling Stone, which wrote that it should "rightfully install him at the forefront of contemporary composer/performers." Stereo Review even selected it as its album of the year. It wasn't getting played on many stereos, however, either on the turntable or the radio. Nonetheless, Reprise would give Webb one more chance the following year on 1972's Letters, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice. -- Richie Unterberger
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