It's long odds that Rickie Lee Jones' new album will sell as hot as her first one. Instead of a fast jump on the fame train, she waited a cool three years to follow up her debut, provoking Warner Brothers' big deals to mangle their manicures.
So now they get another thorn in the executive side: Only one tune is true airwaves fodder, barely scathed by slippery time changes and hooks that grab the heart first, the wallet second. Even that song wears a title so snakey that it needs a nickname to squeeze between the commercials.
Maybe it was precognition, maybe just a devilish razzing of her long-suffering, silver-tongued angels, but there's a certain charm about the words "Andrea Doria" etched in the ungrooved vinyl on "Pirates."
There are those who claim that Rickie Lee Jones is merely Tom Waits in drag. The chief complainants are invariable male, and they usually confess to not liking Waits much anyway.
That her music stirs up such a combination of Freudian sweat and chauvinist threat is interesting, but assessing it only in terms of the closest masculine example smacks of the sort of sexual politics whose buzzwords include "poetess" and "songstress."
Obvious comparisons can certainly be drawn between the styles of both artists, parellels underscored by their real-life, on-and-off relationship. Paradoxically, Waits' lyrics have become so self-consciously devoted to beat, bop bathos that his most eloquent statement of late is "In Shades," an instrumental on "Heartattack and Vine." If "Pirates" makes anything clear, it's that Jones is no Mardou Fox to Waits' Jack Kerouac. She may believe romance can be found even amid dirty sheets and thin-soled straits, but she no longer suffers the illusion that these things necessarily enhance it.
The songs on this LP deal with the natural symbiosis of societies large and small, in a way that is neither cynical nor self-pitying. The characters move in and out of the songs, inflictors and recipients of joy and pain, using and being used by each other in a way that is mostly devoid of real malice or profundity. They get dealt a bad deck, fall down, give another tug on their bootstraps; they experience sundry little ironies and epiphanies; they discover their own currents of charisma in the face of unrequited adulation for someone else. They are often down, but rarely out.
Making these mosaics, Jones uses the richest, most brilliant tiles of language and detail. In "living it up," idle street-corner oglers "speak fluently blonde." The title track describes a character named Joey this way: "a '57 Lincoln you got a radio that hurts/and the girls like to touch it/just to find out if it works."
Then there's "Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking," a bop ditty alive with movement and color. Woody and Dutch are lightly comical in their post-hip yearning for a musical era whose time has come and gone, but they're "diamond dialectos of points and taps" all the same. Pick it up on the night train down on the corner of rhythm and blues where I have met all of may boys since back in '52 bringing'em Stax and Sun 'cuz I think that Cleveland forgot and Memphis forgot where they were comin' from
Jones' feel for visual rhythms is so forceful and economic that its accuracy sometimes jolts. On "skeltons," she manages to capture perfectly the experience of being stopped by police, from the perspectives of both passenger and driver at the same time: "step in a waltz of red moon-beams."
But if her lyrics emerge from the impulse and meter of music, the music itself is virtually literary in its motives and constant cross-references.
The musicians here are the usual A-team tastemasters, and Jones' actual technique and range are not extraordinary, but she displays a widly uninhibited, almost Joycean obsession for playing with sounds, manipulating the textures and shifting rhythmic gears.
"We Belong Together" has a chorous that would make a perfectly fine AOR hook, but Jones is more interested in testing its possibilities as pure sound. She poses it three different ways before the song is over, making subtle shifts and tilts as though it's some kind of hat she's thinking of buying.
The musical metamorphosis (not experimentation, really) continues throughout the album, turning corners or making leaps just when the listener is in peril of being lulled to one static pleasure. Only "Woody and Dutch" has a consistent meter and structure, unless you want to count the final track, which is more of a coda than an actual song.
One night think that all this movement would become annoying in an album that is basically pop-oriented. But the changes are not of a random nature; they produce a cogent whole, somehow, and bits and pieces of one song eventually merge into another song in a manner as gradual as the gentle evolution of seasons or city streets.
"Woody and Dutch" opens and closes with barroom chatter, but when Jones begins the melody on the second half of the downbeat, she does so in such an unforced, unobtrusive manner that it blends in with the natural conversational rhythms of the background. This exhibits, of course, her legendary feel for bop-jazz constructs; but it also suggests a maturity and restraint not evident in her previous work, particularly "Louie's All-Star Joint," with which this tune will undoubtedly be compared.
Even an album this equisite must have some quirks and glitches. There's still a good bit of the cabaret in Jones' style -- not a bad thing in itself, but it can quickly become cloying when overdone, and depends on a careful balancing of the lyrics to keep such perils at bay. "Traces of the Western Slopes" is a near-miss in this context.
Furthermore, the album is only a scant 40 minutes, for which we can complain only on a financial, rather than a philsophical, basis.
Credit should be given to producers Russ Titelman and Lenny Waronker for their sensitive treatment of Jones' material. And bassist Chuck Rainey, percussionists Steve Gadd and Victor Feldman, and keyboardist Neil Larsen lend an equally fine tone, as does the horn section (Randy Brecker, David Sanborn, Tom Scott).
I hope that "Pirates" does well, and that we can continue to enjoy Jones' contributions, however, infrequent they are. I'm prepared for another long drought, but I've already gone through two copies.
THE ALBUM -- Rickie Lee Jones, "Pirates," Warner BSK 3432.