Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Jimmy Webb - The Moon's a Harsh Mistress 5 CD box set (Rhino Handmade)

Teen genius Webb came to L.A. with an expansive, oddly middle-aged vision forged in Oklahoma church halls; it was completed, knitted neatly as a Beverly Drive surgeon's stitch, with the sight and scent of once-endless orange groves, now falling beneath the tide of dingbat apartments and touchless car wash shrines. As a hit-maker, you know the drill, up up and away to MacArthur Park and the yard goes on forever. But it's as a solo artist that Webb reached his weirdest, sweetest heights, over a series of five under-spun albums on patient Warner Bros affiliates. Every tunesmith needs a lucky coin, and Webb's was Little Feat's Fred Tackett, who could play all the instruments JW couldn't, and brought the maestro's fantasies out of the ether. If you're assuming the results were schlock, assume again. Yes, Webb's music is grand, ambitious, emotional, raw, honest and occasionally makes you squirm, but it's rarely mawkish (though some of the bonus tracks on disc 4 could've stayed buried). Take “Crying in My Sleep,” from 1974's Land's End--a break up ballad with the perfect blend of heartsick and mundane detail, the singer's rhythms suggesting the compulsive hysterical emotion of a man who's very nearly succeeded in getting numb. Or “Campo de Encino,” the funny-lovely centerpiece of Letters (1972)--one of my picks in the Lost in the Grooves book--which posits the San Fernando Valley as a source for deeper longings than ever arise in hipper Hollywood. His voice starts somewhat unschooled, but the ambition, inventiveness, nerve and wit make the earliest tracks among the most fascinating. Among these are “Laspitch” and “Highpockets,” character studies that become less cryptic when revealed in Ben Edmonds' fine notes to be from an unproduced musical. So many gorgeous moments: Webb's original “Galveston,” with a keening, Buckleyesque performance… the haunting reincarnation cycle of “The Highwayman… both versions of “P.F.Sloan”… dueting with sister Susan and an out-of-his-mind Harry Nilsson. The final disc's an unreleased London concert, raw around the edges but full of humor and cool to hear. With a handsome, foldout package, lots of pics and history, vintage radio spots and tunes to break your heart, this box is a knockout, and well worth the Saturday date price tag. Heck, throw in Friday night, too.

Posted by Kim Cooper

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