Aahh, the Webb Sisters…a few years ago the gorgeous duo would pop up on singer-songwriter nights at London’s Troubadour (sometimes when I was guesting with country/folk alchemists Hey Negrita) and they spun a beguiling guitar/harp (the stringed variety) sound as melodic as it was rhythmic, carrying their romantically intriguing vocal harmonies. The songs were lilting and well-crafted so watching them play had a ‘warm bath’ effect, you couldn’t help but relax and smile at their music. Contemporary singles at the time and especially the accompanying album had them sounding good but a little too often the production steered them towards a quasi Fleetwood Mac radio-friendly vibe that was always tuneful but somehow took the edge off their distinct character. I thought that maybe a Mitchell Froom might better grasp their essence and bring it to tape – much as he did with Bonnie Raitt.
Since those days, the sisters have landed one of the coolest musical gigs on the planet – touring and singing with Leonard Cohen. The rasping lyricist and all-round charmer made the most of their presence in his stellar band and even appears on a cut on this, the new Webb Sisters album.
The front cover art has them dressed in shirts and ties with a curious Victorian ribcage motif imposed..which must signify something..? But more significant is that the producer’s chair this time around belongs to veteran artist and talent-nurturer Peter Asher, once of pop duo Peter & Gordon and friend to many original songsmiths from James Taylor onwards. It’s not really a surprise that Asher would take an interest in an act like this, he has an ear for vocal work and perhaps more importantly tunes that lodge in the brain for a long stay. At the core of the instrumental sound on this set remains the picking skills of Charley and Hattie Webb, the mix team is led by Nathaniel Kunkel – presumably the son or brother of Russ who plays some of the drum parts. Dean Parks adds guitar to some tracks and Leland Sklar, Roscoe Beck and Jennifer Condos take care of bass duties. So how organic and crisp is this going to sound ?? These players know what they’re doing, have nothing to prove, work for the song. The only lurking danger is that under Asher few chances will be taken.
Lead track ‘Baroque Thoughts’ is haunting, the twin vocal pleading but utterly tuneful and the accompaniment as light as the butterfly’s wings mentioned in the lyrics ; ‘Calling This A Life’ has a slight Cockney tinge in the narration, thankfully dispelled whenever the sound thickens out (one Lily Allen is more than enough !) ; title track ‘Savages’ has a meatier and edgier sound, singing from the heart and really a classic folkrock piece. ‘Dark Sky’ is a strange quasi madrigal evoking Miranda Sex Garden ; the American rocky sound kicks in on ‘Burn’ and the ladies sound 100% comfortable, mandolin and steel guitar rolling across the mix, totally successful. Two acoustics weave up a lonesome chug on ‘Amelie’s Smile’ and a restrained vocal coasts through the desolate melody and light orchestration. Asher at his best ! ‘If It Be Your Will’ is a live cut introduced by a brief narration by Laughing Lenny himself. Fair enough, he wrote it….
The easygoing beat of ‘1000 Stars’ is a treat, great snare sound and overall a joyous number with an ascending sequence, again backing kept light and airy, much in the style of Emma’s Imagination, the dreamy song that gets into your system. ‘The Goodnight Song’ sounds a tad twee after that, but never mind. Bonus cut ‘Yours Truly’ is a gentle lament to close, much in the latterday style of Amy Studt.
Certainly sounding more natural and less radio-aimed than the previous LP, the Webb Sisters sound more and more their own original creation
Pete Sargeant www.fairhearing.co.uk