This abbreviated playlist is probably where I should have started, before reading a word of Rickie Lee Jones’ riveting memoir Last Chance Texaco.
It would have been helpful as a re-introduction of sorts to Jones’ volatile art, and a reminder of the ways she shuffled the elements of her artistic trickbag into transportive, wildly ambitious song-stories. Pieces that traipse over the customary boundaries dividing pop and jazz and gospel and folk song. Compositions that sprawl across space the way film soundtracks do, yet are comprised of slight, precisely etched microscopic details.
Jones has a sharp memory. In her book, she shares the inspiration for certain songs, and tales from the recording studio when she was bringing them to life. Reading these made me immediately want to trip back to the records; when I did, I was floored all over again by the way her poetry and narrative writing synergizes with the textures of the music. She’s an entirely original singer but very rarely depends on just her dramatic lead vocal performance to carry a track: The richness of her work lies in the surroundings.
Here are just a few Jones traits I’d highlight if somebody asked me to do an “Art of the Singer-Songwriter” course:
The coloristic effects Jones creates with multi-tracked harmonies. Lots of singers transform their voices into choirs, but there are very few who conjure such haunting and beautiful arrays that way. Jones’ are built on close intervals – lots of seconds and minor thirds – and are positioned perfectly in the mix to serve up Pips-style background affirmations or chorales from the troubled neighborhoods of the Great Beyond. (“Traces of the Western Slopes,” “Ghost Train.”)
The phrasing. When she sings, Jones can sound like she’s just been roused from sleep, and doesn’t really care whether she can even be understood – the bleary becomes part of the tale. She slouches, stretches words way across bar lines, veers into sudden melodrama. She understands scat-singing as practiced by jazz people, but developed her own (fierce) sense of swing and a corresponding syllabic language for it. (“Dat Dere,” “We Belong Together.”).
The dimensionality of her characters. Some singer-songwriters rely on a singular narrative “voice,” an orientation that carries through from song to song. Jones does that to a degree, but often she’ll shift perspective for a line or an effect. Her writing rejects the standard “girl at her diary” formulation to suggest an expansive notion of the feminine. She can be all kinds of woman at once – the lovestruck teenager and the quiet sage, the nurturing mother and the mystic, the fragile soul and the girl who can hang with the boys. That’s because she really could hang – there’s plenty in the book on that, and musicians who took part in Jones’ sessions have described her process as extremely demanding, requiring almost a paranormal level of sensitivity. (“A Lucky Guy” and everything else from Pirates.)
The open spaces. The Jones song that startled me most was “Coolsville,” a spare little wisp of blues in shadow that is one highlight from her first record. To listen now, in this era of high-gloss supercharged debuts, is to appreciate how overloaded the pop canvas can get. From the very beginning of her career, Jones understood how to use expanses of open space for intense dramatic effect. She lets atmosphere speak where words fail, celebrating “Coolsville” as an almost-distant state, interpreting the standard “I’ll Be Seeing You” as a series of fleeting, fitful sensory impressions. (“Coolsville,” “I’ll Be Seeing You”).
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