When Rickie Lee Jones is in a studio, her enormous talent tends to sprawl, drifting wherever whim takes her.
Her last full album, 1981's "Pirates," contained some brilliant songs, but they were so diffuse that they didn't assume memorable shape or acquire driving emotional focus until her 1982 tour. Jones' new album, "The Magazine" (Warner Brothers 9 25117-1), again contains some inspired, ambitious songwriting. But once more, her elliptical poetry and restless chord progressions often drift out of focus. There's enough to make "The Magazine" an absorbing listen, but these songs may not reach maturity until Jones tours again.
Jones' new producer, James Newton Howard (an alumnus of Elton John's band), gave her synthesizers to write on and to play on the record, and they seem to have fueled Jones' propensity to reverie. The album opens with the dreamy sound-track music of synths and strings before giving way to a song called "Gravity" that seems to lack any.
Jones conjures up an arresting image of a young girl standing, lost and lonely, beneath a train trestle. The song ends with the equally strong image of the same girl dreaming of floating up to a planet where she is important, only to be confounded by gravity. The middle of this seven-minute mini-movie is a muddle, though, with Jones slurring the pronunciation of already oblique images and changing rhythms.
The album's title tune has a similarly intriguing premise: The singer grew up from a tomboy to be a cover girl but is still waiting for Billie Holiday's "The Man I Love." The title tune disperses its possibilities by never defining its characters or its musical elements sufficiently. "Rorschachs," the ambitious trilogy instrumental and two linked songs that end the album, is a dreamscape guarded by images so stubbornly personal that no one else is allowed in.
All it takes is a catchy little piano riff to restore some focus. "The Real End" has just such a riff to break up the lines into digestible bites and to build the verses into payoff choruses. This sense of organization carries over into the lyrics, as Jones gives her women friends some hard-won advice based on her own mistakes with men.
Jones has used the same music, mood and characters for 1979's "Danny's All-Star Joint," 1981's "Woody and Dutch" and now "Juke Box Fury." We revisit Woody and the "doyt-doyt jukebox" at Danny's but this time from the older, wiser, perspective of someone less impressed with Coolsville boys and less vulnerable to their games.
Both of these songs are held together by an inner rhythm and blues logic that keeps them moving forward, much as Jones' inspiration, Laura Nyro, once used the Drifters' sound to drive her confessional songs. Jones' songs even have Nyro's trademark arrangement of gospel vocal harmonies over pounding piano riffs. Jones borrows a line from Nyro's "Eli's Coming" ("You better hide your heart") for "Runaround," the best song on "The Magazine."
This ambitious song tackles the "willing victim" role that women so often assume in song and in life. Jones links the two arenas by admitting that "every tear that falls in here is a dime for the Juke Box Fury." Instead of bemoaning her runaround boyfriend, the singer realizes she can find other options; instead of breaking her heart, she can break the chains on her heart. For once, Jones manages to vary the dynamics and rhythm in a song without losing the carry-through momentum.
Like Jones, Romeo Void's Deborah Iyall is a bohemian poet who sometimes has trouble squeezing her confessional art into the pop-song format. In contrast to Jones' art music, though, Iyall favors the hard-hitting freewheeling new wave of her models, Patti Smith and Exene Cervenka.
After a year off, Iyall and Romeo Void are back on track with a solid new album, "Instincts" (415/Columbia BFC 39155).
This album works because no matter how far Iyall's musings, Ben Bossi's sax solos and Teeter Woods' guitar riffs stray on the verses, they always coalesce on the choruses. As the band's name implies, the songs attack romantic mythology with pithy chorus slogans like "Were we 10 years younger five years ago?" or "It was just too easy to break your heart."
The old anger, though, has been replaced by a new willingness to trust love despite its flaws. The music, too, relaxes enough to let a little tenderness in. Like Jones, Iyall attacks the woman-as-victim role; on the album's first single, she insists that "A Girl in Trouble (is a temporary thing)," that eventually every girl gets smart and gets tough. The muscular rhythm section behind her reinforces the point.
On the album's best rocker, "Say No," Iyall acknowledges she's not always so sure of the answers. With former Temptations drummer Aaron Smith punching behind each "no," Iyall implores her lover to "say no, say no, say no when I'm like this." On the album's moody ballad "Cut," Iyall admits to a new lover and to herself, "I don't trust eyes; I trust your instincts."