By Richie Unterberger
Between 1970 and 1972, Jimmy Webb had released three albums on Reprise, all of which gained some critical acclaim, and none of which sold worth a damn. (All of them, too, have been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music.) It was an odd and unexpected circumstance, even given that before 1970, Webb had been known almost exclusively as a songwriter, not a singer, performer, or recording artist. He'd nonetheless been one of the most successful pop music composers of the late 1960s, and other industry songwriters were making the transition from backroom boys-and-girls to star recording artists, such as Carole King and Nilsson. Plus he was on Reprise, which with its parent label Warner Brothers was the singer-songwriter's home away from home, their rosters including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor, Arlo Guthrie, Gordon Lightfoot, Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, and John Sebastian.
many singer-songwriters for Warners/Reprise to promote effectively all
at once. "When I was a recording artist at Reprise Records in the early
'70s, I was extremely dissatisfied with the way the label was promoting
my record," remembered Webb in his book Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting.
"Like, they weren't promoting it, or that was my impression. I drove
over to the Warner Bros. lot one afternoon and walked into the label
president's office, a gentleman named Mo Ostin. Mo smiled at me from
behind his owlish black-rimmed glasses and asked what he could do for
me. 'I need you to spend an hour a day on my record, Mo, either on the
phone or in person. I really need you to put in the time,' I pleaded.
He smiled again. 'Jimmy, we put out 43 albums this month alone and I'm
afraid I just don't have the time available to make that promise.'
"'Well then,' I replied, 'I would like to ask you to release me from my contract.' I owed Warner Bros. Records in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars in unrecouped royalties and had privately resolved to pay it back if necessary in order to make my escape. Mo stood up and took my hand. 'You're free to go.' He smiled. I found out later that he had absorbed the loss so I could start out somewhere else with a clean slate. As far as I know to this day there has never been a hint of animosity between us."
Webb, however, would not be without a contract for long, signing to friend David Geffen's new Asylum label. Again, to all appearances this seemed like a good fit. Asylum was, like Warners/Reprise, heavy on singer-songwriters, its artists including Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan (for one album), and Jimmy's good friend Joni Mitchell. "The truth was that I felt deeply envious of people like Joni and Jackson, because I couldn't find an identity like that for myself," observed Webb in Barney Hoskyns's Waiting for the Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes, and the Sound of Los Angeles when recalling his transition from pop hitmaker to singer-songwriter. "I was very uncomfortable with the way I was being perceived, politically and every other way. I didn't feel a part of my own generation, I felt somehow lost in a much older and more conservative group, so I immediately began to plot a way out of this cul-de-sac."
Yet Webb's only LP for the company, Land's End, would ultimately be the same old story: good reviews, and few sales. Even had the album sold decently, it might not have made back its costs, so drawn-out and turbulent was its gestation. The tone of the album was more turbulent than usual as well, much of the material having been inspired by a woman the songwriter had met at his Albert Hall concert in London in April 1972. Initially Jimmy had thought of enlisting Gus Dudgeon, then hot with Elton John, as a producer, even flying to London to meet with Dudgeon. But the two didn't click, and Webb's manager steered him toward another English producer, Robin Cable, who'd done some engineering for both Elton John and Jimmy's friend Harry Nilsson.
Compared to his fairly modestly produced Reprise albums, Land's End (co-produced by Webb and Cable) was a relatively lush affair. In keeping with the drift of the times, numerous session musicians were used. Several of them had worked with Jimmy in the studio before, including guitarist Fred Tackett (the principal instrumental contributor to Webb's Reprise records, other than Webb himself), saxophonist Tom Scott, and Webb's sister Susan, who supplied background vocals (as did Joni Mitchell). There were also, however, three guys from Elton John's band: drummer Nigel Olsson, bassist Dee Murray, and guitarist Davey Johnstone (who was actually credited with mandolin on this particular recording). Also contributing some drums was Ringo Starr, who'd played on few sessions since the Beatles' breakup. Famed British session man B.J. Cole added pedal steel guitar, giving cuts like "Ocean in His Eyes" -- the only song Jimmy's written on guitar, sparked by tunings shown to him by Tackett and Mitchell -- more of a country-rock flavor than Webb had ever had in his previous work. There were also orchestral, almost Phil Spectoresque productions that concluded each side of the LP, "Just This One Time" and "Land's End/Asleep on the Wind."
In a 1994 article by Peter Doggett in Record Collector, Webb expressed some reservations about the elaborate production, which he described as featuring "four pianos, three drummers, six guitarists. And I still don't think we quite got it. I can't hear the three drummers on there! Sometimes I think I get so wrapped up in what I'm doing, without any second opinion to challenge mine, that what comes out is only comprehensible to me." Still, not all of the songs were epic in scope by any means. The buoyant "Feet in the Sunshine" might have been the LP's most commercial cut, and was in fact one of two singles lifted from the album ("Crying in the Sleep" being the other), though neither made a commercial impact. "Alyce Blue Gown" had, for Webb at any rate, an atypical hard rock arrangement, while "It's a Sin" had an ominous religious judgement day tone.
Webb and Cable, however, mixed the material several times without coming up with a satisfactory result. Jimmy eventually opted to finish the job with the assistance of longtime Joni Mitchell engineer Henry Lewy. It had been a costly album, and one that probably didn't make a profit, as like Webb's other LPs it didn't make the charts. As usual, however, there were good reviews as consolation, with Rolling Stone's Jon Landau hailing it as "one of the most interesting sounding albums so far this year," adding: "As rock romanticism, this albums works for me. At its best, I find it moving with the force that Webb intended through his massive, powerfully constructed production." Webb's stay at Geffen only did result in this one album, but he'd find yet another home within the Warner Brothers empire when he hooked up with Atlantic for his next LP, 1977's El Mirage, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger
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