In some respects, the careers of John Hiatt and Jimmy Webb are slightly parallel. Both found more success as songwriters than performers early on and their songwriting successes were ultimately big enough to subsidize their sometimes erratic performing careers. The most pronounced difference is that Hiatt is actually an engaging entertainer and sometimes the best translator of his quirkily inventive songcraft. Webb, on the other hand, can be a spotty presenter of his own work; his admittedly magnificent compositions are often better left in the hands of artists who have the ability to infuse them with the passionate delivery that Webb clearly designed in the writing.
So what are we to make of Webb’s latest album, Just Across the River? First of all, River is a new album in the most liberal sense of the word; there is only one new song in the set list, with the rest of the album comprised of numbers from Webb’s oft-visited songbook.
The hook on River is the fresh Country/Bluegrass/Folk arrangements of some of Webb’s most familiar songs and the presence of superstar duet partners and musicians to inhabit these new takes on old favorites.
Some work astonishing well: Lucinda Williams’ well worn rasp is the perfect counterpoint for “Galveston,” Jackson Browne brings a playful gravitas to “P.F. Sloan,” Mark Knopfler is a wonderfully laconic presence on “Highwayman” and Willie Nelson is a natural on “If You See Me Getting Smaller.”
Other choices are more problematic. Billy Joel’s reading of “Wichita Lineman” seems slightly forced, Linda Ronstadt’s crystalline harmonies can’t salvage Webb’s over-singing on “All I Know” and the song that probably should have been River’s centerpiece, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” featuring its most renowned singer, Glen Campbell, is overarranged and winds up being meanderingly busy and a pale imitation of greatness.Webb’s new song, “Where Words End,” is a beautiful love song and an appropriate addition to his impressive catalog, but it would have likely been exponentially more powerful with Michael McDonald in the lead and Webb in the supporting position. Devout Jimmy Webb fans will find enough to celebrate on Just Across the River but casual listeners or fans of his guests may be a little disappointed in the overall outcome here.