For better or for worse, I must own up to the fact that my record collection contains approximately 250 different versions of the 10 songs on this disc. And while it may say something about my sanity (or lack thereof) that I spent countless hours in 1993 and ’94 scouring used-vinyl bins for LPs with Jimmy Webb songwriting credits on them by artists ranging from Urge Overkill to Liberace and all points inbetween, it says even more about Jimmy Webb’s songwriting that so many versions of his songs have been recorded.
The great irony, however, is that Webb has never before released his own recordings of seven of the 10 songs on Ten Easy Pieces, despite a solo career that has included eight albums. This is the first chance to hear the writer’s own interpretations of landmark compositions such as “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” (74 versions in my collection), “Wichita Lineman” (51), “MacArthur Park” (40) and “Didn’t We” (37), save for an off-the-cuff live version of “Wichita” on a Razor & Tie In Their Own Words compilation a couple years back.
Webb has wisely decided to deliver his classics in the simplest form possible here — largely as piano-and-vocal-only recordings, with the occasional touch of cello, pedal steel or oboe, plus backing vocals on a couple tracks by the likes of Shawn Colvin and Marc Cohn. Rendered in such an exquisitely straightforward manner, the songs are revealed for what they are, at heart: Simply songs, not country songs, or soul songs, or jazz songs, or punk songs, or disco songs — even though they’ve been delivered in all of those forms (and then some) over the decades.
And what’s at the heart of a great song? In Webb’s case, it’s almost always a melody that triggers an emotional reaction like a pheromone, such as the reaching-for-the-sky turn that rises when a lover is “standing there, looking out to sea” in “Galveston”, or the dramatic descension that strikes when the tragic hero confesses “I fell and fell alone” in “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress”.
But the proof is also in the lyrics. Webb could spot a man working on a telephone pole in the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma, and turn it into “Wichita Lineman”, perhaps the ultimate song of unrequited romantic longing. He could also lay his thoughts on the line as simply and clearly as possible, as in “All I Know”. And then there’s the weird shit; “MacArthur Park” may be a much-parodied and ridiculed epic of melodrama, but imagine being the person who actually cooked up that little “cake in the rain” scheme.
That Jimmy Webb, who turned 50 in August, went so long without recording this album is remarkable (if not unconscionable). That it’s finally here now goes a long way toward shoring up a significant gap in popular music history.