Rickie Lee Jones – Rickie Lee Jones (1979) and Pirates (1981)

From Joni Mitchell to an artist often portrayed as a Joni imitator.

I remember her eponymous début album well. It made quite an impact at the time. It was a very assured first record. Clearly she’d already found her feet with a style that looked back to several familiar things – the american songbook, fifties movie soundtracks, blues and bohemian hipster jargon – but also seemed new and original.

She had the confidence from the start to record songs that didn’t adhere to simple pop formulas. Notably there are stops, tempo changes and restarts. And she even had a left field hit with “Chuck E’s in Love” with it’s retro feel and, yes, a complete stop and change of structure and tempo.

There’s a little moment of magic in that song, the kick back into the opening tempo and motifs, provided by a clever drum lick by Steve Gadd, and throughout the backing players – all LA studio royalty – serve her and the material well.

Already she has adopted a slurred cod-Bohemian vocal style, and the slur and the hipster jargon can draw attention away from her vocal skills, which are not inconsiderable, and the emotional punch she can deliver.

The emotional peak is “Last Chance Texaco” in which she delivers a long stream of automotive metaphors and double plays (“he tried to be standard, he tried to be mobile, he tried living in a world and in his shell… she threw all the rods that he gave her”) and deftly handles a slow build up and a difficult melody which stretches her range to deliver, at the very top of her range, the desperate emotional knock out blow in the last chorus. Again the assurance and the sure footedness is striking for an artist making her first album.

Another aspect of her vocal delivery is her use of timing for effect, the way she draws the ear in by keeping it hanging on. She uses this device to great effect on “Young Blood” (not that song) with the studio players matching her perfectly. The slur and the timing games are deployed to great effect on “Weasel and The White Boys Cool” with Gadd and Co in terrific form on a funky, off-beat, stop-start composition.

“Coolsville” is a dark and intriguing song about sexual coming of age – and disillusionment, and again she pitches the delivery well with clever use of both ends of her range.

Even the minor songs are enjoyable and well performed – and often have that retro sound, with the lyrics populated with 50s street-wise teenagers who are naughty in a more innocent age.

The critical and commercial success of the début predictably created pressure and expectations for the follow up.

She maintained the courageous approach with adventurous, sophisticated song structures and it’s a similar formula with many of the same studio players and the same production team. The material is more consistent which means, in this case, that whilst there are less lesser songs we also don’t get the highs of “Coolsville” and “Last Chance Texaco”. Matters of contrast – not being better or worse, but significant differences – are the less direct lyrics, a majority of songs being piano rather than guitar based which seems to effect the rhythmic aspect, and a darker mood.

The critics loved this album and mostly still do.

I get that the craftsmanship is more consistent here, and the arrangements and the sound of the record a sumptuous and seductive to the ear, but for me it comes down to the big emotional highs on the first album. As good as the second is it never scales those heights (or I just like my emotion to be very apparent).

After a strong start her career seemed to falter and her quality became more variable. Word is that in the last decade or so she’s come back on strong and all along, it seems, she was taking chances – but maybe never had the sort of core audience that somebody like David Bowie has and which expects and accepts something different rather than sticking close to a formula.

Whatever, those first two albums still stand up well and provide satisfying listening today – though you can be surprised at how short a “record” was back then.


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