Rickie Lee Jones
Life, in Bittersweet Fits and Restless Starts
Rickie Lee Jones will probably be forever associated with the talky bohogirl scenes of "Chuck E's in Love" and "Last Chance Texaco" from her 1979 debut, songs that cast the schemes of the down-and-out in tones of romantic hipsterdom. But her most important contribution came when she refused to make an easy-money sequel, and instead concocted the far more ambitious Pirates—a multihued gem that lifted singer-songwriter introspection to the realm of art music.
Here Jones trades the hallowed street corner for a long sojourn in the mythic desert. She swaps the acoustic-guitar earthiness of her debut for expansive piano-based textures, and from this loftier perch follows street toughs and "sadeyed Sinatras" as they angle, often in vain, for momentary bliss. Her characters are desperate to break away from drudgery, and she chronicles their doomed attempts the way Springsteen did in Born to Run (see p. 733)—breathlessly, and with an acute sense of destiny. But where Born to Run revs mostly on that busting-out urge, Jones's odes are riddled with ambivalence and conflicting emotions. They're stories told in bittersweet fits and restless starts.
There are eight songs on Pirates, and Jones brings a slightly different vocal characterization to each one. She sings "Living It Up" in a voice that hides deep disappointment behind stoic bravado. She trembles through each line of the tragic "Skeletons," emulates a lonesome bird on "Traces of the Western Slopes," and cops a hint of junkie dissipation for the gorgeously harmonized "A Lucky Guy." Each inflection becomes central to its narrative, and that's one way to tell how completely Jones changed the game: Lots of singers do credible interpretations of songs by Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell, but it's impossible to conceive of these songs rendered properly by any other voice.
Released: 1981, Warner Bros.
Key Tracks: "Living It Up," "We Belong Together"
Catalog Choice: Flying Cowboys; The Magazine
Next Stop: Fiona Apple: When the Pawn . . .
After That: Joan Armatrading: Joan Armatrading
Book Page: 410
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#1 from Whit Andrews, near Worcester - 11/22/2008 11:32
Rickie Lee Jones still sounds like she’s singing to me, though. (And not just me, of course.) I am so glad I live in the era of recorded music, when I can hear this kind of lilting, haunting song in the quiet whenever I want.
#2 from Tom Moon - 11/23/2008 11:54
I’m hoping it’s OK to refer readers to your entire post re Pirates—and life itself. you’ve captured something quite striking and true in that post; we’re indeed lucky to have art like this at our fingertips, to lift us up anytime.
the curious can read it (and see a tremendous picture, too!) here: