Rickie Lee Jones
Balm In Gilead ••••
An American original, Rickie Lee Jones has quietly amassed a catalogue of serious class over the course of her thirty-year career. Whether she’s experimenting with song structure or playing it straight, Chicago-born Jones always seems to bring something unique and interesting to the table, exploring various styles from jazz and pop to gospel and R&B. Balm In Gilead, her eleventh studio album, is no different. As warm and soulful as its title would suggest, it slowly reveals itself to be an album of quiet grace and power.
Following 2007’s experimental and largely improvised The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard, a rough and ready collection highlighting a harder-edged rock side to her sound, Jones opted to delve into her catalogue of unfinished songs and fashion a collection that marries the old and the new, where songs written as recently as December 2008 sit alongside material she began working on as early as 1986. Earliest number, ‘Wild Girl’, began life as one of Flying Cowboys’ embryos, but in 2009 represents a 21st birthday gift to Jones’s daughter Charlotte. Finger-snapping and as gently swinging as any classic Rickie Lee jazz-pop number, it’s understated and wonderfully subtle – Jones even plays the soft drumbeat herself – but there’s a gorgeous moment where the horns come in and we are transported to another plain entirely. It’s beautifully heartfelt and instantly memorable; a warm and melodic start to a record that stretches out expansively in its centre.
‘Old Enough’, a duet with Ben Harper, is also soft and soulful, a smooth bluesy number reminiscent in places of ‘Mink Coat At The Bus Stop’ from 2003’s The Evening Of My Best Day. ‘Remember Me’, meanwhile, could well be the most country-inspired number Jones has ever committed to tape. For an artist who has dabbled in so many genres, it’s surprising that country has not been more prevalent in Jones’s repertoire. But here, with bluegrass star Alison Krauss on violin and backing vocals from Vic Chesnutt, it proves to be yet another style that fits Jones like a glove, features some lovely harmonies and accordions. The mood switches to playful on ‘The Moon Is Made Of Gold,’ a new recording of a familiar Jones concert number written in 1954 by her father, Richard Loris Jones. Sounding like a lost jazz standard, it could easily have slotted in on 1991’s Pop Pop; Jones’s phrasing here is utterly superb and the arrangement, driven by some exquisite guitar work from John Reynolds, is well-judged.
From there, Balm In Gilead takes a much more experimental tone with a trio of exploratory compositions. ‘His Jeweled Floor’, which features both Vic Chesnutt and Victoria Williams, is a strange but quite beautiful piece of choral quasi-psychedelia, all multi-tracked vocals and odd whirring noises. The dark ‘Eucalyptus Trail’, which Jones began writing during her trip-hop experiments of the Ghostyhead era, begins with a piano melody reminiscent of The Magazine’s ‘Prelude To Gravity’ and a lyric that also appears on The Evening Of My Best Day’s ‘A Face In The Crowd’ (“I am the last of my kind in this town”), but grows into a similarly psychedelic piece, off-kilter but weirdly comforting, with a dense arrangement boasting strings and hushed harmonies. The scorching blues instrumental ‘The Blue Ghazel’, with its red-hot organs, electric guitars and distorted background vocals, brings us out into the comparative light of the album’s closing stages. ‘Bonfires’ is a highlight, not only of this section but of the album as a whole. Simple but incredibly effective, it displays Jones’s way with an inherently melancholic and resigned but beautiful melody, and a lyric of genuine regret and sadness. All the focus is on her voice and guitar here, with subtle background harmonics from Jon Brion, and it works magnificently. ‘Bayless Street’, which features dobro, organ and violin, brings the album to a soft and wistful conclusion.
Balm In Gilead doesn’t scale the dizzying heights of Jones’s early masterpieces like 1981’s peerless Pirates, and doesn’t always approach the arty experimentation of Ghostyhead or The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard, but it finds Jones in a rich vein of form. The songs are often simple but unfailingly inviting, and in that regard it has most in common with albums like 1993’s Traffic From Paradise or The Evening Of My Best Day (perhaps no surprise, considering both Balm and Evening were co-produced by long-time collaborator David Kalish). Jones’s voice has inevitably lost some of its dexterity and perhaps some of its range with age, but her phrasing remains strikingly unique and her inimitable sleepy, slurring vocal style is in full evidence throughout. The title is perfect: this music, warm and healing, really is a balm of sorts. It stands as another great addition to the Rickie Lee Jones catalogue, which grows ever more impressive with each new release.
UK release date: 02/11/09; www.myspace.com/dutchessofcoolsville
3 Comments so far
Leave a comment