Webb Brothers – All this useless beauty
Evidently it wasn’t just the grrls who felt like exiles amid the testosterone-fueled Chicago indie-rock scene immortalized in Liz Phair’s mythical Guyville. The Webb Brothers — latecomers to that post-grunge alt-rock mecca (and sons of songwriting legend Jimmy Webb) — found it plenty disaffecting as well.
In their case, of course, it wasn’t a matter of gender, but rather the cumulative effect of their immersion in that North Side demimonde: a self-absorbed shadow-world propped up by the illusion, as the Webbs put it in “The Liar’s Club”, that “everyone’s important and the potion that you choose can’t catch up to you.”
“There was something desperate and weird about it all, yet also alluring,” says Christiaan Webb, speaking by phone from his apartment in Chicago. “Maybe it was the reckless abandon, I don’t know. It just seemed like the place to be.”
The year was 1994. The Webbs — Christiaan, then 22, and Justin, barely 20 — had moved from Boston to Chicago to hone their skills after their pal Mary Lou Lord had turned them on to lo-fi avatars like Guided By Voices and Pavement.
“A bunch of bands here just got signed, so there was this sort of post-Seattle thing going,” Christiaan explains. “There was a real scene here, but nothing really happened. The Smashing Pumpkins sort of happened. Then Veruca Salt happened for a minute. Urge Overkill self-destructed. Getting a record deal didn’t make you huge, at least not for long.”
After four years of tending bar and playing dead-end gigs in pool halls and dives, the Webbs, who alternately billed themselves as Mercybeat and the Webb Brothers, didn’t think they were going anywhere. “We were into the whole bar and nightlife scene, and it started to feel like we’d be stuck there forever,” Justin says. “Then we got cynical. That’s when we started writing Maroon.”
The songs on Maroon, naturally enough, became what Justin calls “snapshots of four years of living and partying that way.” The album itself didn’t become a reality until friend and sometime bandmate Chris Bataille (of America UK) slipped a copy of Beyond The Biosphere, the Webbs DIY debut, to Wyndham Wallace in 1998.
Wallace owned the hip English label Easy! Tiger, on which he issued a Webb Brothers single called Excerpts From Beyond The Biosphere early the following year. He also lined up some high-profile London dates for the duo (both brothers sing; Christiaan plays keys, Justin guitar), from which they not only reaped rave reviews in the British press but also a record deal from Atlantic UK. “In a matter of months,” says Justin, “we went from playing to empty rooms where you’re staring at the floor for the first 40 feet, to playing to packed houses and having the times of our lives.”
The Webbs say those high times in England and Europe color the more sanguine material they’ve slated for their next album, most of which is already written. For now, though, Maroon, which came out in the UK last year and in the United States in June, finds them still in Chicago, shining a cruel light on the young, narcissistic crowd they ran with back when they were sharing a dingy, one-room apartment and burning the candle at both ends.
With its sweeping orchestration, surging guitars, and heart-tugging Tin Pan Alley lyricism, the music on Maroon is as gorgeous, even breathtaking, as the vacant faces which decorated that shallow, decadent scene. Corrosive, jaded lines like “I loved you in a fashion” and “All the cocaine in the world/Can’t bring back the girl,” though, are anything but pretty. Yet, to their credit, the Webbs don’t place themselves over and above all this useless beauty, but rather, as revelations such as “We’re the liar’s club” and “I’d ask her to dance but I can’t even stand” attest, count themselves among its creeps and casualties.
Maroon is, in many respects, a Windy City answer to the novels of Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West, as well as the records of Randy Newman and Brian Wilson, works that expose and dissect the seedy underbelly of “sunny” Southern California. Maroon even betrays a sonic affinity with the music of Newman and Wilson, especially the link those records share to producer-arranger Van Dyke Parks. The ultra-romantic sensibility of the Webbs’ iconic father, who among other songs for the ages wrote “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”, isn’t as obvious, even though Jimmy moved in much the same Hollywood circles as Parks, Wilson, and Newman.
Dad, however, is the one who got Christiaan and Justin listening to Newman, as well as the similarly sardonic Steely Dan and Warren Zevon, when all their pre-teen buddies were into pop-metal bands like Poison and Warrant. Just as importantly, says Justin, their father instilled in them a sense of the importance of craft in songwriting, one that could hardly have served them better on Maroon (although where the guys got their love of Moog and European electronica is anyone’s guess).
“What we’re really interested in is taking traditional songwriting craft, where you’ve got really good rhymes and really good midsections musically, and making it work,” Justin explains. “Too often when people don’t do those things, they’re just making excuses for music that doesn’t have much substance, for songs that really aren’t very good.”
All of which suggests that plenty of dad’s influence rubbed off on the Webbs after all.