Rickie Lee Jones
Reviewed on this page:
Rickie Lee Jones - Pirates - Girl At Her Volcano - The Magazine - Flying Cowboys - Pop Pop - Traffic
From Paradise - Naked Songs - Ghostyhead -
It's Like This - Live At Red Rocks - The Evening Of My
Best Day - The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard -
Balm In Gilead
Rickie Lee Jones was born in Chicago in 1954, hit L.A. in the mid-70s, had a couple of hit albums
evoking comparisons to Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and
Tom Waits, and has traveled her own idiosyncratic (not to say
perverse) course ever since. She's kind of hard to describe
because everything you've already heard about her is true: Yes,
she's a masterful lyricist. Yes, she romanticizes and trivializes
lumpenprole life. She does have a gorgeous voice - and she usually
chokes it off. Her phrasing is both maddeningly difficult to
understand and emotionally arresting. She's highly self-
indulgent and completely unsparing of herself; precious and
terrifyingly authentic. She doesn't release albums very often, they don't sell much and they're not always great,
but you're really missing out if you just write her off.
I saw her in concert in late 2003 and savagely critiqued it on our concert review
page. I haven't found much in the way of fan sites, but her formerly meager official site
has come a long way, and in addition to the usual info it carries an extensive selection of otherwise unavailable live
recordings on CD and MP3.
Rickie Lee Jones (1979)
- This contains her fluke hit single, "Chuck E.'s In Love," which is pleasantly silly pop. The
record went gold, and led to her winning a Best New Artist Grammy. It's very inconsistent: many tracks are either ripoffs of Joni
Mitchell piano ballads ("On Saturday Afternoons in 1963"; "Coolsville" succeeds anyway) or precious, jive takes on nightclub jazz ("Easy
Money," "Danny's All-Star Joint"), and she's far from her peak as a singer. She does show talent as a storyteller ("Young Blood"), and
comes up with one masterpiece: "Weasel And The White Boys Cool," a moody, swinging character assassination that presages her work on
Produced by Russ Titelman and Lenny Waronker, and they overdo it in places (the strings that bury Jones' vocals on "Company"). Session players galore including Steve Gadd, Randy Newman, Victor Feldman, Willie Weeks. (DBW)
- The jivey jazz numbers are disposable, and the diffuse, plodding, and amelodic "Saturday Afternoons" and "Coolsville" grind the record to a halt; neither they nor Pirates, sound at all like Joni, who always made it clear what the tune was. But a few livelier, more economical and digestible tunes like "Young Blood" do recall Court And Spark, and of these "Chuck E." and "Weasel" really make the effort worthwhile. (JA)
- A critics' fave, and this one deserves all the praise. Although the
sophisticated, shifting arrangements here owe a lot to records like
Court and Spark, her startling
originality and casual melodicism make this a thing apart. Most
writers settle for either narrative story songs or impressionistic
collections of images - Jones does both at the same time on tracks
like "Living It Up" and "Tracks Of The Western Slopes." But what's
really outstanding about the album is her uncanny ability to shift
moods within each song, sweeping you along with her: every tune
except the good-time "Woody And Dutch On The Slow Train To Peking"
and the subdued album closer "The Returns" has at least one radical
mood shift, and often more. Although it's clearly a finely-crafted
work - the ace backing band sounds completely relaxed and
confident - it moves with a restless spontaneity that's more like
real life than any work of art I've ever experienced. Titelman and
Waronker produced. (DBW)
- This isn't for everyone. Jones' vocal mannerisms are extreme here; sometimes you can hardly hear her, other times
her girlish quaveriness is grating. She lays the jazz affectations on thick, and it's no coincidence that so much of
this sounds like mid-70s Joni Mitchell meets mid-70s Steely Dan - the players are from exactly the same L.A. studio
pro crowd, and Donald Fagen himself guests on the amazingly Steely Dan-like title track. A lot of the refrains and
individual instrumental licks are memorable, but the album as a whole doesn't gel and doesn't break new ground. Still,
it's interesting and mostly pleasant. (JA)
Girl At Her Volcano (1983)
In maximum churlishness mode, Jones released a ten-inch record containing jazz standards (some recorded live) and a
couple of originals. She partly gets away with it: her sense of dynamics and drama making magic on occasion (the Left Banke's
"Walk Away Renee," Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life"). Otherwise, her renditions are
either too affected ("My Funny Valentine," where the original melody is indiscernable) or too ordinary ("Under The
Boardwalk," which is straight-up pop corn). And when the record's so short to begin with, trivia like Tom Waits' "Rainbow
Sleeves" and Jones' "Hey Bub" is truly irritating. Self-produced; on the heels of her first two records this sailed into the Top
40, but it's nearly impossible to find today, and not really worth the effort. (DBW)
The Magazine (1984)
The sound here is extremely close to Pirates, though she does throw in some synth squiggling on a couple of
tracks ("Deep Space," "The Unsigned Painting"). But the tracks are shorter and more predictable, and more
self-consciously arty (an album-opening "Prelude," the closing suite "Rorschachs"). Fans will love the swaggering full
band numbers "The Real End," "Juke Box Fury" and "Runaround," plus the plaintive title track, but it's not exactly a
career high point. The musicians are mostly heavyweights like Steve Gadd, Nathan East, Steve Lukather, Victor Feldman, etc. Produced by RLJ and James Newton
Howard. After this release Jones took five years off from recording. (DBW)
Flying Cowboys (1989)
By now she's operating in a much more commercial context, with almost-standard
song structures and full pop-rock backing (including Greg Phillinganes, Jim Keltner, Dean
Parks, Randy Brecker, etc.) on most of the tracks. Some of the
arrangements are pure pop (title track), although she bends the
rules at times ("Rodeo Girl") and also experiments with reggae on
the amusing "Ghetto Of My Mind" and "Love's Gonna Bring Us Back
Alive." Her lyrics are still very strong, complex and individual,
and her voice is unmistakeable ("Atlas' Marker"), but it gets kind
of steamrolled in the arrangements. The melodies too are more
conventional ("Satellites") although they're still mostly enjoyable
("Just My Baby," "Away From The Sky"). But once the fantastic
"Ghost Train," just Jones on vocals and acoustic guitar with a hint
of synth, shows you how good she can be - with that remarkable
sense of drama, timing and dynamics - you won't be satisfied with
the rest. Produced by Walter Becker. (DBW)
Pop Pop (1991)
It's not easy being an RLJ fan. With Flaubert's Salammbo and
Zappa's Lumpy Gravy,
this is more evidence that anybody can make a mediocre work of art,
but it takes a genius to make a truly awful one. On paper,
recording an album of jazz standards should have great:
she's certainly got the range, the sense of pitch, and the spirit
for it, plus an obvious love of the music. But everything got lost
in the translation: most of the tempos are aggravatingly slow ("My
One And Only Love," "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most"), her
interpretations are frequently pure jive (Jimi Hendrix's "Up From The Skies"),
and many of the selections were better left unremembered (the
painfully cutesy "I Won't Grow Up," "Hi-Lili Hi-Lo"). Somehow a Marty Balin number ended up here, too
("Comin' Back To Me"). The only bearable tracks are "Dat Dere" and
"Bye Bye Blackbird," both saved by medium tempos and Joe
Henderson's tender sax. Produced by Jones and David Was. (DBW)
Traffic From Paradise (1993)
Not unpleasant, but a disappointingly ordinary collection of
tracks. The arrangements are even more conventional and laid-back
than Flying Cowboys, with some country touches (Jones plays
mandolin and bowed dulcimer besides her usual guitar and
keyboards). The melodies are nothing special ("Pink Flamingos"),
and the lyrics are impressionistic ("The Albatross") and
occasionally outrageous ("Altar Boy"), but they don't add up to
anything compelling. There's another cover, David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel," which just sounds
pointless in its Adult Contemporary drag. There are a couple of
catchy tunes ("Jolie Jolie," "Stewart's Coat"), but overall it's
subdued and forgettable. If this is maturity, give me confused
adolescence any day. Produced and arranged by Jones. (DBW)
Naked Songs (1995)
Can you say Rickie Lee Jones Unplugged? I thought you could. The only tune here she hadn't previously recorded is the
jazz standard "Autumn Leaves" - the rest are older tunes reinterpreted
with just acoustic guitar or piano. She's a hell of a guitar player - using it more for accents and gentle prodding
than for strummed rhythmic accompaniment - but on piano she's not distinctive or interesting, which is particularly
damaging on long numbers like "Living It Up" and "We Belong Together." She's also singing in a much more ordinary
four-to-the-bar fashion these days - more like she's trying to teach you the song than like she's performing it. It's an
introduction to many of her best songs, but most of them are better heard on the original recordings. (DBW)
Seeking the fast track to hipness, Jones teamed with co-producer/multi-instrumentalist Rick Boston for an album of
trip-hop: stray acoustic guitar and bass licks - live or sampled - over soothing, endlessly repetitive drum
machine programming, topped with lengthy, half-spoken, often opaque narratives (title track, "Cloud Of Unknowning"). The
production is much more varied and well thought-out than you'd expect: the loops
and instrumentation change frequently within tracks, for example, a
simple acoustic guitar suddenly replaced by Macarena-style keyboard
lines ("Little Yellow Town"). That said, the hermetic nature of the
experiment, coupled with Jones' refusal to sing any actual melodies,
gets very monotonous. Which makes the album's one full-band rocker,
"Firewalker" - a great tune with sharp lyrics - stand out even more.
There aren't a lot of other musicians, but John Leftwich contributes fine
standup bass to the obvious story-song "Howard." Overall, a
welcome change from the complacency of her recent work;
not a major effort, but evidence that she's still capable of producing one. (DBW)
I've heard the record and I agree with the above. (JA)
It's Like This (2000)
Another standards record, this time featuring a number of songs from the 60s and early 70s - Steely Dan's "Show Biz Kids," Traffic's "The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys" - alongside more obvious choices (Gershwin's "Someone To
Watch Over Me" and "I Can't Get Started"). The disc suffers from corny material (Charlie Chaplin's
"Smile") and cornier ole-time jazz backing (Hoagy Carmichael's "Up A Lazy River"), but at least the snappy tempos keep things from getting
The big plus (for fans, at least) is that her voice sounds exactly as it did on her early records, unpredictable delivery, girlish quaver and
all, and her multi-tracked vocals add life to an otherwise predictable cover of Marvin Gaye's "Trouble
Man" - for some reason, that and "Inner City Blues" are the two Gaye songs everyone covers nowadays, and I'd love to see someone tackle
"What's Happening Brother" or "Let's Get It On" just for variety. Anyway, she doesn't do as well with the Beatles'
"For No One": Joe Jackson's strict 4/4 piano playing seems to limit her vocals, and for some reason she replaces the melodic French horn part
with a swelling organ that sounds like it escaped from "A Whiter Shade Of Pale."
My theory is, you should never cover a Beatles tune unless you're doing a whole album of them, because whatever the context, that one tune
will inevitably overshadow all the surrounding material. And that's precisely what happens here: the song's so elegant and concise you wind
up wanting to fast-forward through "Low Spark." I can't imagine anyone but an RLJ fan liking the album, and even so it's inconsistent and
slight, but by gum it's better than Pop Pop. Guests include Taj Mahal, Ben Folds and Peter Erskine.
Live At Red Rocks (2001)
Finally, a good old fashioned live album.
The set list is almost entirely made up of tunes from Flying Cowboys - "Just My Baby," "Rodeo Girl," a ten-minute "Love Is Gonna Bring Us Back Alive"
with guest vocals from Lyle Lovett - and Rickie Lee Jones - "Youngblood," "Coolsville." Otherwise, there's just one
Pirates tune ("We Belong Together") and a throwaway cover of Van Morrison's "Gloria."
Her vocals are terrific, not whispery and stop/start but not straight down the middle like Naked Songs either -
for perhaps the first time, she actually sounds like she's enjoying singing.
The band is Sal Bernardi and Wayne Johnson (guitar), Jeff Daniels (keyboards), Wayne Johnson (guitar), John Leftwich (bass), Tony
Morales (drums), Patches (trumpet), and Ron Powell (percussion) - occasionally they get too loud and obliterate Jones's whimsy
("Satellites"), but they do a fine job of reproducing the studio tracks, and add some amusing jamming ("Weasel And The White Boys Cool").
None of the material is new or significantly reconceived, but as a résumé summary it's impressive.
Produced by RLJ and Great Big Island.
The Evening Of My Best Day (2003)
A collection of jazzy pop ("Ugly Man") often reminiscent of her early period ("Second Chance," strikingly like
"Tracks Of The Western Slopes") though never as complex or memorable. The instrumentation shifts from track to track, and
some songs show a heavy bluegrass influence ("Lap Dog"), while others veer toward electric blues ("Mink Coat At The
Bus Stop") or even bossa nova ("Bitchenostrophy," with Bill Frisell on electric guitar), and though it's generally mellow
there's always something unexpected around the corner.
Lyrically, though, the disc is really aggravating: a bunch of simpleminded advertisements for the Democratic Party
("Tell Somebody (Repeal The Patriot Act Now)"), with no depth or subtlety, no narrative and for all the ranting,
no real emotion. The gentle, reflective title track is the only song that stands up against her best work.
An eclectic bunch of guests: Mike Watt adds bass to "It Takes You There," and
vocals are added here and there by Ben Harper, Grant Lee Philips and Eric Benét.
Produced by Jones and David Kalish, who also plays a variety of guitars.
The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard (2007)
A loose, improvised set of jams inspired by Lee Cantelon's retro-Beat Jesus freak poetry ("Gethsemane").
The format encourages Jones to be more preciously Bohemian and less disciplined than ever, culminating in the rambling, unlistenable eight-minute "I Was There." She's limited to vocals on most tunes ("Seventh Day" is an exception), with responsibility for the tunes devolving on guitarist Peter Atanasoff, who comes up with drab, instantly familiar progressions ("Falling Up") and no melodies to speak of: "Circle In The Sand," a copy of "Heroin," is the closest thing to a decent tune.
The rest of the core band is Joey Maramba (bass), Jay Bellerose (drums) and Bernie Larsen (guitar, keys or drums), and they generally play with a hushed reverence for the material that's entirely misplaced.
"Produced" by either Cantelon and Atanasoff or Rob Schnapf.
Balm In Gilead (2009)
The title may make you think of the previous Sermon, but mostly this is standard singer-songwriter pop ("Wild Girl"). The bluegrass influence from Best Day carries on ("Remember Me," featuring Alison Krauss), plus there's some Pop Pop ancienia ("The Moon Is Made Of Gold," by Jones's father) and Laurel Canyon throwbacks ("Old Enough," with Ben Harper contributing a James Taylor vibe).
Then there are a couple of underwritten, droning numbers which may strike you as haunting or boring according to your taste ("His Jeweled Floor," with Victoria Williams; "The Blue Ghazel").
Overall the disc strikes me as inoffensive and mild and not at all what I listen to Jones for, like a sequel to Traffic From Paradise.
The Devil You Know (2012)
Another set of covers, due in September.
Damn, this is more trouble than it's