Although it is hard for me to fathom, Rickie Lee Jones is 60 today. It is kind of hard to classify her work because she did a lot of different stuff. She really is the female Tom Waits (but don’t tell her I said that). I guess I would have to say that she is mostly jazz-pop in the tradition of Steely Dan. But generally more interesting and far more varied. I think there are two aspects of her greatness. First is that she is able to sing beautifully with real emotion — a trick that almost no singer is able to accomplish. I mean, lots of singers are able to put fake emotion in their singing — just listen to American Idol. Maybe she’s just a great liar, but I always think Jones is telling me the truth — even through her affected attitude.
The second aspect of her greatness is how she is able to translate conversational English into music. Take as the most obvious and early example, “Chuck E’s in Love.” The lyrics are all very natural. There is nothing terribly well formed by this:
He don’t stutter when he talks
And it’s true, it’s true! He sure is acquired
A cool and inspired sorta jazz when he walks.
Yet with the music it’s just brilliant. And then on the macro-scale, the song is inspired. It tells the story first person from the outside. Why is Chuck E gone? He must be in love! But at the end, she flips it on its head and reveals that, actually, she was just playing and that she is the girl Chuck E loves. It’s brilliant and entirely in keeping with the way that she sings the song so slyly. I guess it is worth listening to:
Jones’ best work has been done in the last decade or so. She brought everything she had done up to that point into an amazing album, The Evening of My Best Day. The styles of the song vary widely, including a gospel protest song, Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act). It was followed by a number of great albums, most especially Balm in Gilead — an especially intimate album. Here she is at a radio station performing “Wild Girl” off that album:
I highly recommend all of her recent albums. It’s beautiful and compelling and real. You can’t go wrong.
Happy birthday Rickie Lee Jones!