Posted by: ben | March 6, 2009

left of centre: maroon by the webb brothers

So many great songs, artists and albums seem to be passed over entirely. Left of Centre aims to highlight music which should have reached a bigger audience than it did. In this edition: The Webb Brothers’ album ‘Maroon.’

Ben: Imagine that, as a child, you watch your father writing music, touring the world and gaining universal acclaim. He eventually writes some of the most well-known songs of a generation and becomes the only person to win Grammy awards for music, lyrics and orchestration. Imagine that as you leave home, you form a band with your brothers and start getting industry attention, that your demo album immediately sells out and becomes a collector’s item.

Then imagine the resounding indifference that greets you when your first album proper is released.

Oh, the Webb Brothers. The father, in case you didn’t guess, is Jimmy Webb, writer of Wichita Lineman and collaborator with Dylan, Elvis, Sinatra and just about everyone else of note. How could his offspring – Christiaan and Justin, occasionally joined by James – not inherit some of their father’s talent and have a towering career?

Their demo album Beyond the Biosphere was recorded to tout round the record companies as a calling card rather than being a standalone product. YBeyond the Biosphereou like pop punk? Here’s Cold Fingers. Heartwrenching guitar more your thing? Here’s the acoustic What Have We Become. In this capacity it must have exceeded expectations – the British labels launched a frenzied bidding war to sign them with the honours eventually going to Warner.

It’s difficult to see the appeal now. 1999/2000 was not just a tick from one number to another but also of popular musical style. The majors were all chomping at the bit to get away from British bands – Britpop was dead, replaced by the sort of soft rock that complemented the clean-living, plastic smile urban lifestyle that was the mainstay of every bloody BBC One makeover programme. This was the era when Toploader sold 1.7 million copies of their (rubbish) debut album, when Stereophonics were thought of a serious alternative band. America was seen as the great hope at the time – the eventual success of The Strokes and, to a lesser extent, The White Stripes illustrates this. The Webb Brothers were seen as a logical move away from suburban Milton Keynes to edgy Chicago bars.

And so came Maroon. Biosphere had been released commercially with a brief polish, big puff pieces were arranged in bars that looked like chemists for Q Magazine, a full festival tour was arranged with a huge handpainted backdrop, the album had full strings and a choir where required – Warner clearly thought they had something special.

Maroon

Playing Maroon for the first time, you’d be inclined to agree. Opening track The Liar’s Club is the sort of luscious dark orchestral affair that Neil Hannon would be proud of, a tale of wasters, jaded kids rotting in bars “pretending that everything is fun.” Think an East Coast Less Than Zero set against a warm fuzzy guitar and a sense of calm, breathless embarassment and you’re about there. It’s a fantastic pop song, the sort of thing to put front-and-centre on a mixtape to impress your fellow musos and say, hey, why weren’t these guys huge?

Maroon wasn’t a one-track wonder. Summer People is a the sort of thing you could easily imagine in the top ten circa summer 2000 on constant rotation on the Radio 1 playlist. It could have been a Steal My Sunshine or a You Get What You Give – it has that same shiny production, the same simple singable lyrics, the same enthusiasm. Similarly, In A Fashion has the sort of echoey production that would’ve punctuated a boilingly-hot day perfectly.

And let’s not forget the jaw-dropper that is Intermission. A seventy-second piano-led vaudevillian hornfest that for a few months seemed to be used on every television trailer everywhere.

But much like Biosphere, there’s an awful lot of filler. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting excited about Powder Pale or Are You Happy Now? at the time, let alone ten years on. But how is this any different from Parachutes or Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia? Neither are particularly classic albums, both have patchy tracks which far outweight the better ones in number but unlike Maroon both sold in alarmingly high numbers.

Maroon‘s release was really badly timed. It needed – really needed – to be released a year earlier. By the time it was released in 2000, people were fed up of the MOR guitar sound they were peddling. The Strokes were far more successful for a reason – they sounded like nothing else available at the time. The Webb Brothers were unassuming in a time when the industry needed difference – nu metal was incredibly popular for a brief period because it was so markedly different from everything that had been released over the intervening five years. The Webb Brothers’ clean, smiling faces were far too much like the clean, smiling faces of Supergrass and Blur. It didn’t help that their self-titled third album was based around one dull four-note riff.

Webb Brothers Publicity ShotThe world has all but forgotten the Webbs now. They still chug along recording a concept album about the god helmet and still play every now and again but the world’s moved on. If you google them very little comes up save for some dead links, a meagre Wikipedia article and not a lot else.

Here is a link to MegaUpload of a few of the best songs off Maroon. It’s naughty linking to them directly but I doubt Warner will particularly care anymore. Download them, have a listen and pretend it’s a balmy summers day in 2000.

Oh, and finally, Maroon has the best artwork of any album ever released. The front cover looks alright but when you open it up….

Like this? Why not try…There’s a plethora of similar artists. I like to listen to it along with New Order’s oft-forgotten Get Ready from the same era.

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Responses

  1. I’d seen this knocking about and often wondered. I’m probably going to have to pick this up now. Despite the recession.

  2. You can normally find it for two or three quid. It’s very much worth it at that price.


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