Jimmy Webb

Twilight of the Renegades

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Busy working with such recording artists as Michael Feinstein and Carly Simon when he isn't writing songs for motion pictures or composing so-far-unstaged Broadway musicals, Jimmy Webb hasn't bothered much with his solo performing career in the late '90s and early 2000s beyond making club appearances in major cities in the U.S., Great Britain, and Australia. Specifically, until Twilight of the Renegades, he had not issued a new album in nine years (Ten Easy Pieces, 1996) or an album of new material in 12 (Suspending Disbelief, 1993). Released in the U.K. in May 2005 and in the U.S. three months later on the day after the composer's 59th birthday, the album finds a performer who has long since given up on worrying about the trappings of rock he embraced on his records of the 1970s, but not on the ambitious songwriting and arranging that characterized his classic work of the 1960s. The 12 songs are mostly piano-based ballads, the extended melodies of which will sound familiar to anyone who's heard "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" or "The Highwayman" (in other words, everyone). The song structures tend to be extended, too, often eschewing the conventional verse-chorus patterns of pop. The lyrics are imaginative and touch on surprising subjects, starting with "Paul Gauguin in the South Seas," one of several songs about unusual characters in search of individual happiness, only some of whom succeed in finding it. In this sense, the most touching song must be "Class Clown," which follows a character from the schoolroom through life to the point when Webb concludes his story by repeating, "He's homeless." But there are also touching love songs, notably "Why Do I Have To...," the arrangement for which strongly recalls Burt Bacharach with its single muted trumpet. Webb has improved as a singer over the years, but his wheezy tenor still has a limited range and little projection. In his lower range, he sometimes recalls the upper range of Warren Zevon, though he lacks Zevon's bitten-off phrasing. The vocals remain the weak spot in the performing aspect of Webb's career, so that one continues to listen to him to hear a composer's individual interpretation of his work, rather than for definitive renditions of the songs.

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