Pick up any dictionary and look up the word “idiosyncratic.”
Chances are, next to the definition, there is a picture of Rickie Lee Jones.
Rickie Lee Jones didn’t just read Jack Kerouac’s “On The
Road,” she lived it. Growing up her family lead a peripatetic existence
moving from Chicago to Phoenix to Olympia.
A wild child, Jones was inspired by imaginary friends and
early aspirations to perform. Her father Richard, (a frustrated musician
who worked odd jobs to support his family), taught Rickie Lee to sing
and write music at an early age.
Before she had turned 18, Jones quit high school and
hitchhiked to California. She arrived in Hollywood in the late 70s and
immediately hooked up with her Boho soulmate Tom Waits.
She waitressed and woodshedded, performing her own
compositions at the Troubadour’s famous “Hoot Night.” Her first
big break came when Little Feat vocalist Lowell George recorded Jones’
“Easy Money” on his solo LP, Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here. Major record
labels came a’callin and Jones was signed to Warner Brothers.
Her self-titled debut arrived in the spring of 1979.
Disco and Punk were duking it out on the charts, but Jones rejected
the prevailing musical trends. Instead she crafted an album that combined
finger-popping cool with restless introspection. The exuberant single,
“Chuck E.’s In Love,” (a sly nod to running buddy, Chuck E. Weiss), shot
up the charts. Critical acclaim followed and Jones won a Grammy for
Best New Artist.
Following a devastating break up with Waits, Jones relocated
to New York and recorded the brilliant and desolate Pirates. Three
years later when she released The Magazine she was married and
living in France. By the end of the 80s she was back in California,
raising her daughter Charlotte and recording her sublime Flying
Cowboys album.
Rickie Lee Jones has never been a prolific writer, in fact
she occasionally suffers from writer’s block. So in between stellar
original efforts like Traffic In Paradise (1993) Ghostyhead (1997)
Evening Of My Best Day (2003) Sermon On Exposition Blvd, (2007)
and Balm In Gilead, (2009) Jones has combated the writer’s block
by recording songs that have inspired her through the years.
In 1991 Jones released Pop Pop, which tackled everything
from Jimi Hendrix’s “Up From The Skies,” to the standard, “Bye Bye
Blackbird” to Jefferson Airplane’s “Coming Back To Me.”
A decade later, It’s Like This re-interpreted classic songs
from Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye, Lerner & Loewe, Traffic, Gershwin and
the Beatles.
Jones’ new release, The Devil You Know, continues this
ritual of pop exploration and excavation. She radically re-interprets
two Rolling Stones cuts. “Sympathy For The Devil” opens the record.
The original was an amalgam of seductive Latin rhythms
and scabrous, skittery guitar riffs. Mick Jagger reveled in the role of
gimlet-eyed satyr. Jones version is stripped to the bone. Just a couple
of acoustic guitars flesh out the melody. Jones’ vocals are weary but
menacing, conveying the same level of wicked depravity.
“Play With Fire” is an obscure early 60s gem from the
Stones voluminous catalog. In the hands of callow Blues-obsessed
British boys, the song feels like a bad-boy boast. Jones transforms
it, peeling the layers to reveal a cautionary tale of drug addiction.
Gifted musician Ben Harper handles the production chores
on “The Devil You Know” and both “Comfort You” and “The Weight”
benefit from his subtle touch..
The former is a heart rending track from one of Van Morrison’s
least popular efforts, 1974’s Veedon Fleece. Sweet and stark, Jones
manages to simplify Morrison’s labyrinthine wordplay, distilling the
song to it’s essence, a fragile declaration of love….
“You put the weight on me, when it gets too much for me/When it gets
too much, much too much for me/ I’ll do the same thing that you do and
I’ll put the weight on you.”
Levon Helm and the Band made “The Weight” a nimble,
folksy ramble. Rickie Lee strips it down to a piano-driven ballad.
Suddenly, the sparse arrangement compels the listener to focus
on the lyrics, which paint a sad and lonely plea for companionship.
The jaunty flavor of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break
Your Heart” camouflaged real heartbreak under some macho
subterfuge. To Young, romantic disappointment was a painful
rite of passage. Jones delves deep making the listener feel
the words, the ache and regret of a broken heart.
Cloaked in swampy guitar and David Lindley’s
countrified violin, “Reason To Believe” has a back porch feel.
Tim Hardin’s song has always felt like an optimistic sing-a-long.
Jones emphasizes the lyrics’ loss of faith….”If I listen long
enough to you, I’ll find a way to believe that it’s all true/
Knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried, still I look
to find a reason to believe.” The sense of crushing betrayal
is palpable.
The only recent track here is Ben Harper’s “Masterpiece.”
A warm and graceful declaration of undying love: “I could build
a church in your honor, with stained glass windows facing East/
But loving you is my masterpiece.”
Other highlights on The Devil You Know include
a mournful take on the New Orleans classic, “St. James Infirmary”
and “Seems Like A Long Time.” Written by Theodore Anderson
the original version can be found on Brewer & Shipley’s “Tarkio”
The album closes with “Catch The Wind.” Again Jones
subverts expectations, taking Donovan’s ethereal evocation of
the freewheeling 60s and turning it into a hushed and reverent
This isn’t the album you throw on for a dinner party.
The Devil You Know is best assimilated as a solitary experience.
If you want rote recitation of pop songs skip this album
altogether and wait for a new season of “American Idol.”
Rickie Lee Jones is far too mercurial and restless to
settle for nothing less than following her muse. If that leads
her into non-commercial territory, so be it.
Like the disparate artists who inspired her,( Van Morrison,
Billie Holiday, Randy Newman and Laura Nyro), Rickie Lee Jones
marches to her own drummer. We are just lucky enough to try
and keep up.

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