PERMANENT RECORDS: IF GROWN UPS COULD LAUGH THIS SLOW
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
18. RICKIE LEE JONES - RICKIE LEE JONES (1979)
Personnel: Jones performs vocals, as well as some guitars, piano, and percussion; special guests include Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) on piano, Randy Newman on synthesizer, Jeffrey Porcaro (from Toto) on drums, Tom Scott on horns, and too many session musicians to list here
Producers: Lenny Waronker & Russ Titelman / Label: Warner Bros.
Rickie Lee Jones is one of those artists I discovered because of a girlfriend. The fact that she survived that relationship makes her a rare beast. It means I actually liked her music, as opposed to feigning interest in order to keep the peace.
This information is important only because I don't know that I would have become a Rickie Lee Jones fan otherwise. Her kind of bohemian singer-songwriter pop isn't really in my usual area of interest. To toss a music journalist comparison at you, she's like a warmer version of Joni Mitchell but with a Tom Waits bebop sensibility. While her production is more mainstream than Waits would ever indulge in, her freeform narratives wouldn't be out of place on Nighthawks at the Diner, or other early café ramblings from the man. While in retrospect Jones' beret-wearing, brown-cigarette smoking, street-gypsy image might feel contrived, from what I can tell, she came by it honestly. There are certainly moments of finger-snapping jazz on her self-titled debut, like the jitterbug of "Danny's All-Star Joint," and she can hold her own with that kind of arrangement (see her album of standards, Pop Pop, for further evidence). Judging from most public records, she's a bit spacey, a bit in her own universe, which is probably why she fit so well in the Orb's ultraworld soundscapes. That's her being used without her permission on "Little Fluffy Clouds."
The most famous song off of Rickie Lee Jones is "Chuck E.'s in Love." It's a summertime lovesong, a bit of a verbal jest. Chuck E. is the layabout everyone likes to taunt, and no one expected him to ever be in a relationship. The lyrics are an extended expression of disbelief. Chuck E. is acting all crazy, cleaning up his act, all in the name of romance. Of course, the twist is that he's in love "with the little girl who's singin' this song...with me."
"Chuck E.'s in Love" stands on a laid-back guitar riff. There is a little noodling, but all the instrumentation hangs back on this one, doing less work in order to create a greater effect. A lot of the percussion is just snapping, and the horns only blast through at the crescendo. There is a nice moment midway through where there is almost a complete musical pause as Jones searches around for the missing Chuck E. As many first singles are, it's kind of the quintessential Rickie Lee Jones number. "Chuck E.'s in Love" reveals her penchant for storytelling, as well as her unique approach to language. She writes in conversational rhythms, clipping her words in ways that a child might, or that you might hear on a city street. "He learn all of his lines/ And every time, he don't stutter when he talk." Jones' voice is suited for this kind of syntax. She has a low register that smells like warm bread, but she can also go high and get the sweetness of a sugared pastry. It's the club-worn, experienced woman vs. the little girl.
That kind of struggle to maintain a sense of youth as life advances is particularly in evidence on the second cut, "On Saturday Afternoons in 1963." A piano ballad, it steps slowly, its feet heavy with melancholy, but also lingering out of a sense of nostalgia. If she can loiter a while longer, she can hang on to a time when secrets were possible, when she could just spend the day watching the snow fall. The song is sad and knowing, but oddly winning.
Not that everything is all good feeling and love-bead happiness. There is a dangerous foreboding at play in "Coolsville." The deep rumble of drums, brass like sirens, and the caterwaul of guitar come straight out of lost weekends and too many sunrises seen for the wrong reasons. What I like about "Coolsville" is its ambiguity. Jones never says explicitly what she and her dark cohorts, guys with pulp fiction names like Bragger and Junior Lee, have been getting up to. She uses gambling imagery ("Decked out like aces/ We'd beat anybody's bet"), but it's tame next to the suggestiveness of "You stick it here/ You stick it over there/ It never fits/ And now the hungry night wants more and more." Drugs, sex, just another score of any kind--it's the criminal unease, an outlaw malaise. The lure is never ending. If you get out, change locations, you'll just find replacements for whatever monkey is on your back, and pretty soon every place is "Coolsville." The song remains a staple of Jones' live act, its dirty spaces open to new exploration.
Jones has a fascination with city living of all kinds, be it the back alleys or the main streets. "Easy Money" is another story of people looking for an easy way out, an almost noir-ish narrative with bad boys and fast women. The gambling and schemes once more aren't grounded in exact detail, and the money everyone is after could just as easily be taken as a metaphor for love. That's certainly the feeling of "Young Blood." The urban landscape is cold and harsh, but people can find warmth and comfort with each other. "They say the city will make you dirty/ But you look alright/ You feel pretty when he's holding you tight." The concrete streets always have something happening on them, providing an escape from the ennui. If nothing else, you don't have to be alone.
Rickie Lee also appears to be building a larger mythos. "Young Blood" is another track where Beggar makes an appearance, lending the album the air of being its own story. It's not just about the individual songs, but the whole package. The two markers for this tale are probably "Danny's All-Star Joint" (track #7) and the album closer "After Hours (Twelve Bars Past Goodnight)" (track #11). "Danny's" is an up-tempo number, bouncing on the sound of a stand-up bass, a juke-joint piano. It's the portrait of a music club, an equalizing experience. Everyone can come out and listen to the music. If you're broke, the place will spot you a drink. The guy running it, Cecil, may give you a hard time, but he'll fill your cup. "He can talk about your people in a wonderful way," we're told as an explanation of his true nature, "He can talk about your people 'til your hair turns gray."
And yet, where are these people in "After Hours"? Short and quiet, mainly piano with subtle snatches of orchestral washes in the background, it's the singer by herself after the rest of "the gang" has cleared out. The post-last call doldrums of a girl alone with her dreams. It's really the only acceptable finale for a work as personal as Rickie Lee Jones. When it comes right down to it, that's all the record really is: a girl and her dreams. Be they stories about a boy in love or the cop-shoot-cop of a life of addiction, all the songs are fantasies of one mind. Compare her to Joni Mitchell or Tom Waits or whoever else, and they will only be comparisons. She's still just Rickie Lee Jones, standing on a corner all alone.
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Current Soundtrack: The Decemberists, The Crane Wife
Current Mood: interrupted
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich