Rickie Lee Jones (Warner Brothers BSK 3296) is the strongest, songwriting debut since those by Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon and Kate & Anna McGarrigle several years ago. From Randy Newman, Tom Waits and Zevon, Jones has taken the narrative devices of speedy milieus and monologues by fictional characters. From Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell and the McGarrigles, she's learned the ways of writing from a distinctly female perspective without falling into female stereotypes.
What emerges is a new pop music character: a woman who has returned from adventures on the wrong side of the street and the long end of the road to tell her tales - not as a victim but as a seasoned player. She neither has regrets nor makes apologies for invading the male turf of gas stations, juke box joints and the passing lane. She tells her dales with a novelist's eye and a bopper's swagger. She wraps them in thick harmonies and tricky rhythms that challenge the listener to keep up or get left behind.
Where Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell usually withdrew into introspection, both musically and lyrically, to consider the world around them, Jones stands her ground, ready to go face-to-face with all comers. The simultaneous emergence of the Roches and Rickie Lee Jones proves that the former boundaries on female roles in pop songs are gone for good.
Jones' streetwise assurance, particularly in "Danny's All-Star Joint," is backed by a swaggering, jazzy arrangement led by Louis Armstrong's old bassist, Red Callender. Jones delivers her lines in a husky whisper that doesn't ask favors but intimidates with challenge.
She is quite a singer. On "All-Star Joint," set in a short-order grill, she sets the strutting syncopation that implies the joint's fast action. Even as she gives the melody a rich resonance, she plays each character like a radio actress. Cecil the night-shift cook hides behind sly double-entendres. The young punk shooting pinball showboats it. Jones herself comes on with Lauren Bacall style.
The album begins with the first single "Chuck E.'s in Love," a rare snapshot of that elusive instant when one passes into puberty. Jones, 24, sings as a 13-year-old laughing at a boy who's gone dopey over some girl.
When she asks, "What could make a boy behave this way?" She fills the words with a breathy amazement. When she exclaims, "Christ, I think he's even combed his hair!" She works a laugh into her voice without dropping a note. Callender plucks out big bop notes and Jones lets out an exhilarating string of syllables.
But then the truth hits the narrator right between the eyes: "That's not her/I know what's wrong!/ Chuck E's in love/ With the little girl who's singing this song." Jones captures all the giddy shock of the moment.
Not all the songs have happy endings. In "Night Train," Jones assumes the persona of a young mother with a baby under her arm running to a train to get away from someone or something. "In Coolsville," she's a premature washout nursing a bottle of J&B as she recalls her fast days in junior high.
But these are not weepers begging for sympathy. Even in her bleakest moments, Jones remains a tough cookie. She bares her scars of experience proudly and fights back with lines like: "Don't let 'em take me back/ Broken like valiums and chumps in the rain."
Musically, Jones reaches back into the tradition of jazz vocals. She rushes or lags the beat for effect; she improvises syllables against the melody line. She sets her catchy Kurt Weill melodies against her ironic Bertolt Brecht lyrics, much as Randy Newman has done. (Significantly Newman plays synthesizer on the album, and his producers, Lenny Waronker and Russ Titleman, produced it.)
Like the Roches, Jones' musical skills might be understood because she is a vocalist rather than an instrumentalist. There's a sexist bias that female singers are just exercising their natural talent. But Jones and the three Roche sisters have developed their vocal skills as consciously and as effectively as any male guitarist has developed his licks. All four of them do their own vocal arrangements; Jones also does her own horn arrangements.
Rickie Lee Jones and the Roches are the beneficiaries of battles fought and won by the feminist critics and artists who preceded them. Jones and the Roches are the long-delayed answer to the demands by those critics 10 years ago for strong female pop artists.
When you listen to "Rickie Lee Jones" and "The Roches" (Warner Brothers BSK 3298), you don't hear the struggle against role expectations. You hear talented artists who can ignore those pressures and go about their real business.