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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1575

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Rickie Lee Jones: Balm in Gilead
by George Graham

(Fantasy Records 31760 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/21/2009)

Durability in the music world, if you're a singer-songwriter, pretty much requires resourcefulness, as well as a deep well of originality. And someone very much demonstrating that on her new recording is Rickie Lee Jones, who has just released Balm in Gilead.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Ms. Jones classic debut album, best known for its hit song Chuck E's in Love, but it was an album of considerable depth, combining a kind of jazzy hipster atmosphere with thoughtful, sometimes poignant songs.

With a childhood that had her moving around a lot, and a father who was somewhere between an itinerant musician, laborer and a hobo, Rickie Lee Jones absorbed music from her father, as well as his tendency to ramble around.

When she was nineteen, she was living in Los Angeles, waiting tables and occasionally playing music, when the late Lowell George of the band Little Feat heard her do her song Easy Money, which he recorded on his solo album Thanks. I'll Eat It Here. George brought Jones to the attention of his recording company, and that led to her 1979 self-titled debut album, which won a Grammy for best new artist, and remains a classic.

Over the years, she has been releasing a fairly steady stream of music, exploring different styles, occasionally getting jazzy, and going so far as to record a CD of jazz standards in 1991, called Pop Pop. After releasing Ghostyhead in 1997, she kept a low profile, living in Olympia, Washington, raising her daughter Charlotte, and saying that she was battling writer's block.

But in 2003, she returned with a rather more electric album called The Evening of My Best Day, and two years later, did an interesting concept album based on a kind of Biblical paraphrasing that her boyfriend Lee Cantelon was working on, called Sermon on Exposition Boulevard.

Now Ms. Jones is out with Balm in Gilead, and I think it's her best recording since the early 1980s. It captures the characteristics that set her apart, her voice is in great form, the arrangements are fascinating and eclectic, and there's plenty of interesting lyrics to ponder. There's even an instrumental track spotlighting Ms. Jones' electric guitar work.

There is a rather impressive guest list on the new CD, with appearances by Alison Krauss, Vic Chesnutt and Ben Harper, along with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.

Balm in Gilead is rather more laid back than the style many still remember Rickie Lee Jones for, but the music is still quite attractive, and combination of Ms. Jones' vocals and the distinctive instrumentation makes for absorbing listening.

The CD opens with a song called Wild Girl, which in a way could be autobiographical, but now with the decades having passed and with her own daughter a young adult, it looks at the free spirit in a more reflective way. <<>>

Ben Harper makes his appearance on the song Old Enough, given a soulful treatment, with the horn arrangements written by Ms. Jones. <<>>

The CD takes a definite turn toward the country on Remember Me. It's given further country credibility by the presence of Alison Krauss on the fiddle and Vic Chesnutt on the backing vocal. It works surprising well, with Ms. Jones sometimes evoking the sound of Emmylou Harris. <<>>

One of the more unusual tracks on the CD is His Jeweled Floor. It's a kind of blend of a quasi hymn, chant and atmospheric new age piece. Victoria Williams and Vic Chesnutt are on the backing vocals, while Ms. Jones plays all the instruments but the organ and bass. <<>>

Ms. Jones includes a song by her late father Richard Jones, written as a lullaby for the young Rickie Lee. She used to sing The Moon Is Made of Gold in her early days performing, and she brought it back for this CD, with a jazzy setting. It's one of Ms. Jones' most charming vocal performances on this CD. <<>>

Another surprise on the CD is the instrumental track called The Blue Ghazel. Ms. Jones is featured on the guitars. <<>>

Ms. Jones has written a few songs making social commentaries. The Gospel of Carlos, Norman and Smith is along those lines, though the message is basically against hypocrisy. Ms. Jones shares the lead vocal with Chris Joyner. <<>>

The CD ends with A House on Bayless Street, a kind of reminiscence of a place from one's past. It's an interesting mixture of country and bluegrass instrumentation with a kind of spacey ambience. <<>>

Rickie Lee Jones' new CD Balm in Gilead marks her 30th anniversary on the recording scene, and it's one of her best recordings in many years. Her vocals have not lost any of the charm she had on her debut recording, and the new songs are thoughtful, often multi-layered, and musically eclectic. It's one of those recordings that reveals new facets at each listen. Her musical colleagues on the CD add much to the performance, but Ms. Jones also plays a lot of instrumentation herself. Her co-producer, and sometimes co-composer of some of the songs was David Kalish.

Our grade for sound quality comes close to an "A." The mix has good clarity and a nice open sound. Ms. Jones' voice is well-captured, and there's actually a little dynamic range -- the sound is not compressed too badly, so there is some actual loud and soft to the recording.

Rickie Lee Jones has maintained a long career and managed to stay on top of her game. And her long-time fans, along with others who may not have been following her career very closely, will I think be quickly won over by Balm in Gilead.

(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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