Rickie Lee Jones: Her Music

This is part two of my blog series on Rickie Lee Jones. She has released 17 albums, but I am only going to talk about a few. She dabbles in a variety of styles from pop to American songbook to covers of pop songs to pop-jazz. There is an earthiness in her playing, preferring acoustic instruments over electric, and jazzy arrangements over standard pop. Her voice is usually rich in echo or multiple layers, she often talks-sings, but is able to go big vocally without straining her vocal quality. Some of her albums are tough to find, it is almost like she has been covered over by time. When she was discovered back in the late 1970s, she was on the cusp of that laidback Southern California vibe with cool jazz note decorating her songs. That freshness never stays fresh, the American musical culture moves on. She had her big time in the spotlight, then it found someone else. She never really compromised her work, she made an album when she wanted and when she could land a recording contract. There is an intimacy in her voice and lyrical content, but a grandeur in her expression which makes a big arrangement also complimentary to her vocal abilities.

I had forgotten the power of her songs and just how amazing the vocal talent. Listening to her music again was a treat. She learned from the men in her life: Lowell George, Tom Waits and Dr. John, but wrapped those influences around her own songs. At times, I swear I am listening to Joni Mitchell.

Rickie Lee Jones (1979) – Her Grammy winning debut album. The big single was “Chuck E’s in Love” a jazzy, pop single that is full of breathy coolness. Produced by Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, the album got the full attention of Warner Bros. who won the bidding contest for Jones. This song was played on radio until it was worn out. I have rarely heard it since.

“On Saturday Afternoons in 1963” is a soft piano ballad with excellent orchestration.

“Night Train” A soulful song full of gentle instrumental playing over Jones’ lilting voice. Again, the arrangement is lush, but not overpowering.

“Young Blood” A mid-tempo song with steady bass line and snappy beat. This song begs for an umbrella drink and the surf.

“Easy Money” Lowell George of Little Feat was the first to record this song on his solo album. It has that slow jazzy swagger. You might think Dr. John when you hear this one.

“The Last Chance Texaco” A slow-building acoustic story song. The second part of this song is big with Jones’ unleashing her vocal talent.

“Danny’s All-Star Joint” A finger-snapping, swinging song. Jones sings/raps during most of the song. If this was on a jukebox in beer joint, everyone would be dancing.

“Coolsville” Plaintive piano and spare, but effective orchestration. Here you think of Joni Mitchell.

“Weasel and the White Boys Cool” A Steely Dan type song, with a strong instrumental groove. Not really a rocker, more like cool jazz-pop. A well-arranged song, I forgot how good it sounds.

“Company” In the spirit of a torch song, late at night in a dim nightclub. Mainly a piano with soft strings, it is her voice that is on display. Not schmaltzy at all, warm and heartfelt.

“Afterhours” Another soft piano song, a gentle way to end an album full of warmth and sass.

This album was the flavor of the month. Was this the next Joni Mitchell? She came in with her own reflective, story songs and had a musical vision for each. Cool, independent, speaks her mind; all things said of her.

Pirates arrived in 1981, also produced by Titelman and Waronker.

“We Belong Together” A slow-building story song, excellently arranged. Released as a single but only reached No. 40 on the chart. It is a rich and complex song, not an easy choice for radio play. This song tells you that her debut album was not a fluke. This gal has chops. This is no sophomore misfire, she does not write hit singles, although a few drift in that direction. Her songs are more vignettes and stretch beyond the traditional pop song structure.

“Living It Up” The song has infectious piano riff. You need to read the lyrics to fully understand the story in the song. This should have been a hit single. The melody in this song is beautiful.

“Skeletons” A soft, piano song with Jones providing the emotion.

“Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking” a swinging jazz, R&B flavored song with a relentless bass line and cool horns.

“Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)” Very much in the vibe of Steely Dan, with a groove that pulls you in and does not let go. Her songs often have large style changes, like this song. It allows Jones to shine vocally in these downshifts. Her singing is very strong on this song.

“A Lucky Guy” The bass guitar is very prominent in Jones’ music, it helps the piano or guitar find a groove for the song to build on. This song has a very fine repeating melody, which grows at the mid-point. One of the strongest songs on the album. Released as a single but it barely charted.

“Traces of the Western Slopes” Another Steely Dan type pop-jazz arrangement. A fine song, a funky bass line and dreamy piano. The song starts, stops and heads into a jazzy direction.

“The Returns” A soft, gentle piano song that serves to fade out the album.

Girl At Her Volcano (1983) An EP released in-between full albums. Self-produced. Three live tracks and the rest are studio track left over from previous sessions. This was a placeholder until her next full album. I would say this is an album for serious Rickie Lee Jones fans, it is interesting but not vital. She has a voice that fits some of the standards represented here. Check out “Letter from the 9th Ward/Walk Away Renee”, “Rainbow Sleeves” and “So Long” as really good performances.

“Lush Life” and “My Funny Valentine” are live recordings.

“Letter from the 9th Ward / Walk Away Renée”, “Hey Bub” “Under the Boardwalk”, “Rainbow Sleeves” and “So Long” are studio recordings.

The Magazine (1984) Living in Paris, she wrote most of what would be this album. She chose James Newton Howard Elton John) to co-produce with her. The album has a bit of the 80s production gloss, perhaps to give her a contemporary feel. Howard assembles a top-notch group of musicians for the album, much like Titelman and Waronker did.

“Prelude to Gravity” An instrumental piece on piano and strings.

“Gravity” Jones and orchestra. She does some scat singing.

“Juke Box Fury” More typical of Jones on her debut album. It sounds familiar, but still conveys a playful freshness.

“It Must Be Love” She sounds more contemporary on this track, especially the musical accompaniment, but not too stylish. It’s a really nice song.

“Magazine” Jones seems to prefer the piano to the guitar. This is her, the piano and orchestration. Nice layering of her voices.

“The Real End” Released a single, but did not chart very high. It is fine song, but is a bit too regal and complex for the pop chart. A very catchy horn arrangement.

“Deep Space” A quiet, aching piano song.

“Runaround Rorschachs” A catchy synthesizer riff, in the tradition of an old R&B song. With a different arrangement, this might have been a single.

“Theme for the Pope” An acoustic guitar and mandolin folk song. Interesting change of pace.

“The Unsigned Painting” / “The Weird Beast” Interesting, but weak songs. I’m not sure what they are conveying.

Flying Cowboys (1989) Jones shifted gears, having Walter Becker of Steely Dan overseeing the production with Jones. Musically, it is a bit more adventurous and Becker embraces her loose song structure and jazz textures. Becker was a great choice as producer.

“The Horses” was co-written with Becker.

“Just My Baby” has that gentle, swaying groove that shows off her vocals.

“Ghetto of My Mind” has a lovely Island groove to it.

“Rodeo Girl” has a slow, shimmering groove. Becker knows how to augment her voice rather complete with it.

“Satellites” is a jazzy, upbeat song. Becker is not afraid to give the bass plenty of room on this album.

“Flying Cowboys” This is probably the best song and certainly appropriate for radio play.

“Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” Her cover version is nice, but the original by Gerry and the Pacemakers is safe.

“Love is Gonna Bring Us Back Alive” Another Island riffing song with plenty of horns and steel drums.

“Away From the Sky” A poignant, breathy vocal effort.

“Atlas Marker” A jazzy, noisy Tom Waits influenced song. Jones vocals soar. A great way to end the album.

Naked Songs – Live and Acoustic (1995) This was her first official live release. It was produced by Jones and Titelman. This is Jones on the guitar and piano, with the exception of Rob Wasserman playing bass on the last two songs. Not too many performers can carry a full concert with minimal accompaniment, but Jones has a voice that can fill the room and is versatile enough to climb or instantly soften. She chooses her best songs for this set.

“The Horses”
“Weasel and the White Boys Cool”
“Altar Boy”
“It Must Be Love”
“Young Blood”
“The Last Chance Texaco”
“Living It Up”
“We Belong Together”
“Flying Cowboys”
“Stewart’s Coat”
“Chuck E.’s in Love”
“Autumn Leaves”

Balm in Gilead (2009) Is a set of originals. This album sounds similar to her debut, not a twin sister, more like an eccentric uncle. What we enjoyed in her first album 30 years earlier, is here, with more diverse textures.

The folk and jazz vibes are the Tom Waits and Dr. John influence. The layered vocals are of course nice, as well as the mature arrangements. “Wild Girl”, Eucalyptus Trail”

The Devil You Know (2012) This is an album of covers, produced by Ben Harper. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, “Catch the Wind” and “The Weight” are the best. Every song sounds like a drug-induced dirge. Sparse arrangements and very slow, downbeat playing. You have to really like Jones to enjoy this one.

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