|Photo by Barnaby & Scott|
More than half a lifetime ago, I lived in Chicago, on a particularly wicked stretch of Lincoln Avenue. There were six bars on my block alone, and several more on adjacent blocks. This strip was Party Central for Windy City sybarites, and I was in the midst of my seven-day-weekend period. In particular, I dimly remember one Sunday morning when I made my way at 4 a.m. from the Oxford Pub to my apartment half a block away by literally crawling on my hands and knees.
When I mentioned Lincoln Avenue to Christiaan Webb, who performs in the Webb Brothers with his younger sibling Justin, he chuckled darkly and said, “I know the street well.” Things evidently haven’t changed much in Chicago, where the Webbs spent an apparently hellish period under the streetlights that inspired their lush American debut, Maroon.
While the Webb Brothers launched their recording career in England and now split their time between Chicago and the U.K., they are children of Los Angeles: Their father is L.A. songwriter Jimmy Webb, author of such ’60s pop blockbusters as “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park.” While the new-millennium Webbs sport the same keen sense of melody as their paterfamilias, their lyrical concerns are very different: The only lines they’re interested in are the kind you chop up on glass coffee tables, and MacArthur Park is the place where you score them.
Maroon’s tales of nightlife depravity have their roots in the mid-’90s, when the Webbs disbanded their Boston-based rock group and moved to Chicago. “When you’re living there,” Christiaan told me, “and you’re working at night in these clubs and you’re in a local rock band, there is a sense of desperation. We were trying to capture that in the record . . . I didn’t think we would ever get out of there.”
The album didn’t really take shape until after Justin and Christiaan relocated to England. There, they issued what was essentially a demo recording, Beyond the Biosphere, on a British indie label. While that record is quite spare in comparison to the sumptuous production of Maroon, the brothers’ jaundiced world-view was already apparent in curdled songs like “Sour Grapes,” “The Filth of It All,” “Drink and Drown” and “I’m Over and I Know It.”
Maroon — which was first issued last year by WEA Records U.K. on the Webbs’ own imprint, Mews — is a far more extravagant but equally disquieting work, produced by Stephen Street, whose credits include albums by Blur and the Smiths. It’s an extremely opulent record, and one that tells a story in a somewhat old-fashioned way.
“We wanted to make a modern record,” Christiaan said, “but we’ve always been fascinated and obsessed with late-’60s and ’70s records — not concept records, but records that are able to have a mood that carries through the whole record, and a theme to the album that ties everything together.”
That would explain the immense sound of Maroon, which utilizes batteries of strings and horns and such exotic instruments as the theremin to ornament the Webbs’ basic rock-quartet sound. (Christiaan plays keyboards, Justin guitar; both sing.) It also explains the narrative structure of the piece, which focuses loosely on a cast of Nighttown drug vampires called “the Liars Club” and their dissolute universe, where behavior is unchecked by any sense of purpose or conscience, and “love” is an illusory byproduct of substance abuse. Listening to this imperfect but extremely ambitious album, one is struck by the way it so often measures up to its obvious models — Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, the Who’s Quadrophenia, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the Beatles’ Abbey Road.
Here and there on Maroon, there are short scraps of songs, “All the Cocaine in the World” and “Are You Happy Now?,” that work as linking material but which don’t really engage the listener as tunes unto themselves. And a midrecord instrumental interlude, “Intermission,” only serves to heighten the theatrical conceit of the piece. However, when the material works, it bears comparison to the work of other pop-smart rock duos whose main topic was the dissection of the urban demimonde — Steely Dan’s Fagen and Becker and David & David’s Baerwald and Ricketts.
The best thing on the collection is “Summer People,” an insistent, guitar-driven rocker that simultaneously exults in the arrival of summer after a grim Chicago winter and foreshadows the despair that the warm season will bring. Nearly as good is “Low Grade Fever,” a subdued and subtle depiction of a burgeoning drug habit, and the bitterly vengeful breakup song “In a Fashion” (“I hope that you are happy/So happy that it kills you,” its narrator sings over a chipper melody).
Unflinchingly observed and elaborately wrought, Maroon is a flawed but engrossing album that announces the arrival of a gifted pair of mod-pop craftsmen who are not afraid to venture onto the dark end of the street.
THE WEBB BROTHERS | Maroon | (Division One)