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The Sublime Webb Sisters 

Thursday, Jun 23 2011
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Many women we know would do unspeakable things to compel Leonard Cohen to call them "sublime" just once. Between 2008 and 2010, Charley and Hattie Webb were given that rare compliment 246 times. "The sublime Webb Sisters" was how the Canadian bard would introduce onstage the relatively unknown English folk vocalists he had personally selected to back him on his comeback tour.

Cohen was not the only urbane gentleman of a certain age besotted with the Kentish sisters' crystalline harmonies. At the time his musical collaborator (and third backup goddess on tour) Sharon Robinson introduced him to Charley and Hattie in 2008, they had just started work on their third album under the guidance of Peter Asher.

That would be the same Peter Asher who was half of British Invasion duo Peter and Gordon in the mid-'60s, followed by a shining career as a behind-the-scenes music industry mover and shaker. His CV includes being the main A&R guy for the Beatles' label Apple, masterminding the meteoric success of James Taylor, being a huge L.A. player during the hedonistic '70s (Asher was a founding partner in the Roxy with Elliot Roberts, David Geffen and Lou Adler) and running part of Sony Music during the last golden years of the business in the late '90s. (By the way, Asher's appearance during the '60s — ginger mop-top and horn-rimmed glasses — was said to have inspired Mike Myers' Austin Powers look.)

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LORCA COHEN - The Webb Sisters: songs from a room
  • PHOTO BY LORCA COHEN
  • The Webb Sisters: songs from a room

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Asher’s accomplishments and fortune allow him to be extremely picky about his current projects. Recent achievements include the Carole King and James Taylor Live at the Troubadour CD and DVD, a touring one-man show called Peter Asher: A Musical Memoir of the ’60s and Beyond (which he’s just performed in the U.K. at the prestigious Meltdown Festival, curated this year by the Kinks’ Ray Davies) and helping EMI with its excellent recent reissue campaign of the Apple catalog. And after decades as a manager, the longtime Angeleno Brit is particularly reluctant to take on any more budding musicians. For the Webb Sisters, however, Asher made an exception and became both producer and manager. Working around the many transcontinental legs of Cohen's tour, he continued recording the sisters over the last couple of years, adding material they kept composing on the road and bringing them to L.A. or flying to London to get it down on tape.

The result, finally out worldwide, is called Savages. The album was initially released on iTunes in the United States in December, and now is available from U.K. imprint Proper Records as a physical release.

"We talked to a few labels, and nobody was really convincing," Asher told us last year. "And even though the Webb Sisters have a fan base, the labels are still looking for the 'hit single' we don't even claim to have, not the interesting record by artists like them."

Since their first album, 2000's Piece of Mind, Charley and Hattie Webb have had a complex relationship with the music industry. The Brits initially came to Nashville and their indie debut aimed for a kind of blend between good ol’ U.S. adult contemporary country and the always big-in-Europe subgenre of Americana. Their slick second album, 2006's Daylight Crossing, was their attempt at doing the whole big-label thing, crafted right here in L.A. with a who's who of professional adult pop and then taken to the U.K. to be glossied up by studio pros Steve Lipton and Youth.

Though Daylight Crossing was not the huge commercial success that Universal Music Group was banking on, the right people noticed the Webbs' remarkable combination of smart songwriting, striking stage presence and the kind of pure singing that evokes centuries-old folk and the religious sublime in the guise of adult contemporary pop. The initial Peter Asher sessions of 2008 led to a collaboration with Sharon Robinson, which in turn led to the Cohen gig, "a dream job" according to the Webbs.

Cohen's comeback tour, his first in 15 years, kicked off in May 2008; by the end of that year the Webb Sisters had readied an EP to sell at the merch table. It was back to their indie roots, but with an enviable showcase for their talents: Instead of playing to half-empty houses as an opening act, they were onstage for three to four hours, providing soothing counterpoints to an unquestionable living legend.

The Cohen tour put the Webbs in the select company of the singer-poet's long line of Sisters of Mercy, from the anonymous young Alberta ladies who gave him shelter and inspired the song of that name, to Judy Collins (to whom Charley Webb bears an uncanny physical resemblance), to tour graduates like Jennifer Warnes, Perla Batalla and Sharon Robinson, to his current companion, Anjani.

It was not uncommon for audiences leaving the Cohen shows around the world, from Canada to Eastern Europe, from the United States to the Middle East and Australia, to look up "the sublime Webb Sisters" or buy a copy of the EPs they were selling at the venue. Asher continued working with them during the gaps between the legs of their tour. By the time the Cohen tour wrapped in Vegas in December 2010, Savages was available on iTunes.

Asher proves to be an ideal producer for the sisters. With Peter and Gordon, he assembled a blend of vocal harmonies and tasteful, almost baroque production that turned some of the choicest melodies of the Beat era (Paul McCartney was a close friend and gave the duo exclusive material) into delicate pop gems. Later, through his work at the Apple label and, especially, with James Taylor, Asher perfected his trademark combination of taste, practical studio skills and soulfulness. As a producer, he’s one of the last living practitioners of the lost art of properly booking and conducting a studio session. Savages opener "Baroque Thoughts" is a good example: Subtly European classical ("It sounds medieval," says Charley) but entirely L.A. pop, it encases the vocals in a delicate, gently soaring arrangement that must have puzzled those major labels looking for obvious hits. "Blue and You" could be an ancient folk ballad from a dusty songbook, but the sound also would be perfectly at home in a TV soundtrack, a Starbucks compilation or a Morning Becomes Eclectic set.

This makes sense: Asher likes to call himself a scientist (his father was a renowned London doctor) and he's a deeply practical man. While Savages might not have obvious, less-than-subtle hits (except for "Burn," which would not be out of place in today's Country Strong Nashville), it's not a work of pure idealism, and it keeps an eye on the realities of the current market for female harmonies. Those people buying the Starbucks compilations and getting fuzzy feelings from the Wilson Phillips cameo in Bridesmaids are a much bigger market for the Webb Sisters than the Cohen fanatics who have been exposed to them over the last two years.

But the special skills that made the Webb Sisters stand out in the first place are also on display in songs like the a cappella "Dark Skies" or "In Your Father's Eyes," composed in Venice Beach and recorded with Asher's L.A. "Wrecking Crew" of Leland Sklar on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums. This is the kind of music that thrives right around us in venues like the Hotel Café or Largo, a cut (or several) above your "Kate Hudson movie" ballad or feel-good tune.

Back when Lennon and McCartney called Asher to help them scout for new acts for their fledgling Apple label in 1968, the brief was to find "all sorts of different and interesting stuff." The result was the recently rereleased, still solid catalog with works by Badfinger, Doris Troy, Jackie Lomax, Mary Hopkin, John Tavener and Asher's own find, James Taylor. Now the same sensibility (minus the Austin Powers mop and glasses) is telling us to pay attention to two English girls into William Blake, Alison Krauss and Bach, who can also deliver pristine Tracy Chapman, Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen covers.

You might want to listen.

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