After years of on-off writers block, slowing her original, new-album output Rickie Lee Jones reconnected with her creative impulse after moving to New Orleans. There, she has described living between the sounds of the riverboats and the sounds of the train tracks, noises that connect her to everywhere she’s ever been and perhaps that’s the nub of it. Although, perhaps The Other Side Of Desire is not only everywhere she’s ever been to, but also everyone, although viewed through the eyes of someone who is not so much ageing as much as maturing, comfortable and accepting with that process and not feeling the need to push, kick and jostle for attention, now knowing the folly of youth. She has reached an axis point and at one end is her daughter, to whom this record is dedicated and who is now a women with her own mind, at the other is the connection to her father. In both directions are the family ties, the tendrils that reach outwards and loop back inwards, the fibres that weave together into the fabric of her own life, and the substance of these songs.
In one of her fulsome blogs she defines that fulcrum position of a singer in the act of creation far more poetically than I can manage, “I want to listen more than I want to be listened to. This is my moment to sing, and I will sing to you all that I have heard. Here are my feelings carved through the images and sounds of trains and rivers, how they speak to one another all night long when we who live near them can hear them clearly. The crow and the mockingbird, hard to tell that mockingbird sounds like the crow, the light through my old windows, my determination, my despair, my love of humans.” Is this the wisdom of age? A sophisticated mind atop a good heart? Or has this always been the driving force?
Rickie Lee Jones has unquestionably had a remarkable career since bursting onto the American music scene at the end of the 70s like a fully-fledged, overnight-sensation. Her debut album, which won her the Best Newcomer Grammy, and more especially, the first single, promoted the singer with the red beret, cheroot dangling from her lips, to poster girl status. The insouciant swing of Chuck E’s In Love was almost impossible to resist, even in the UK, where the single made the Top 20. Here, the jazzy-hipster vibe ran up against punk’s busted flush, which had already fragmented into a myriad permutations of shorter, spikier pop-songs. In truth, however, the year-end, best-selling single was by Art Garfunkel and Abba had two entries in 1979’s final Top 10 album reckoning, rubbing shoulders with Barry Manilow, Leo Sayer, Barbara Streisand and Supertramp. Against such a backdrop, how could she appear as anything else other than cool as you could wish for.
In truth she wasn’t quite cool enough for the NME hipster press, at least initially. Perhaps they were suspicious of her instant impact, or worse still her romantic entanglement with Tom Waits – you wouldn’t put it past them. But for some, myself included, perhaps a little confounded by Joni’s post Hejira, ‘Reckless’ and then Mingus inspired meandering, here was a new partner for the Boho Dance. ‘The Duchess of Coolsville’ was born on the strength of a great debut album.
Whilst that sprint out of the blocks was always going to be hard to maintain over distance, The following Pirates did well enough and in some ways had a more cohesive sound, and some great songs make it a memorable album in its own right, even if it proved a budget buster financially. The opening, We Belong Together, is a favourite for me, while the street jive of Woody And Dutch On The Slow Train To Peking and the horn laced swing of the title track are obvious highlights. Magazine then found her living in Paris and although some of the synth sounds isolate the album its mid-80s time zone, there was some genuinely ground-breaking stuff on the record, especially in the expansive Rorschach Suite.
There was then a gap of almost exactly five years, during which her father died and Jones gave birth to a daughter. Perhaps unsurprisingly in the circumstances, imagery from her childhood in Arizona seemed to permeate Flying Cowboys, the album that broke the silence and reconnected me with the singer. Even its strange sidestep into reggae for Ghetto of My Mind works, but there are some great songs like The Horses and some of Rickie’s strongest melodies with the quirky single, Satellites, and the wonderful title tack, the latter being a nailed on ‘Desert Island Disc’ for me.
That album marked the end of Rickie’s flirtations with the Top 40 end of the Billboard charts and the UK’s Top 75, where it charted at 50. It also contained a cover version of Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying, the first non-original she had recorded since the EP Girl, At Her Volcano released in ‘83. Over the last 25 years, however, Rickie’s versions of other people’s songs have been an increasingly important part of her repertoire, with three full albums of covers. The Other Side Of Desire is actually her 11th album all told since ‘91, but very nearly half of those include the mix of standards and pop songs to be found on Pop Pop, It’s Like This and The Devil You Know, plus the two live albums that filled the gaps, as Rickie admitted to suffering writer’s block. There was still good stuff to be had, however, and amongst her original output, the beats driven Ghostyhead and the stream of consciousness of the ambitious The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard, pushed the experimental boat into uncharted if rewarding waters.
She may have connected with her muse less frequently over the last couple of decades, this being her first collection of new songs since Balm Of Gilead from 2009, but the latest inspiration comes on the back of a move to New Orleans, which seems to have been provoked, in part at least, by memories of her father living there in his later life, with his second wife. Whilst the relationship between Rickie and her dad was undoubtedly scarred by his alcoholism and the fact that he left the family, you sense through the blogs that Rickie has written that he also played an important role in starting her musical life. Not only was he a musician and songwriter himself, although with no career aspirations there it seems, but also through his stories, which stirred her young mind and lie at the root of Rickie’s own gifts.
New Orleans, battered by the fallout of Katrina, bruised and scarred, yet somehow resilient has proved a newer, unexpected source of inspiration. Unsurprisingly, however, Rickie has also found some willing musical cohorts, who bring with them the legacy of Louisiana’s unique musical culture. It’s also produced by two men who have a strong association with the Crescent City, although neither is truly a native. John Porter is an Englishman, probably still most famous for his work with Roxy Music, playing bass on their second album and beyond as well as studio duties. His extensive CV of work with both British and American bands, however, reflects some time spent living in America and New Orleans in particular, with his work taking on a strong blues flavour, as well as encompassing many indie darlings. Mark Howard who produces three tracks is a Canadian, who enjoyed a long and fruitful working relationship with Daniel Lanois, setting up their bases in New Orleans and LA, before branching off on his own equally impressive litany of long-players. Both help out musically too with John Playing guitar and banjo and Mark adding drum programming.
Whilst the idea of drum loops might suggest a little of Ghostyhead, in a way that’s true, as there’s a deep and spiritual feel to the record, as if Jones has not only reconnected with her creativity, but hit the very source of that energy and tapped into something at once profoundly beautiful and yet mysterious, almost infinite and ever changing. Most of the instrumentation relies on classic tones, however, with the core band centred around Doug Belote’s drums, with additional percussion from Lenny Castro, with the acoustic bass of James Singleton, the B3 of Jon Cleary and Wurlitzer piano of David Torkanowsky. Rickie is herself a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, keys and more. There are strings too from Stevie Black, the use of brass and bass clarinet, plus guest appearances form Zachary Richards, Matt Perrine and guitarists John Fohl and Shane Theriot, adding to that core New Orleans musicality.
As if to echo that earlier blog post, it seems all human life is here too, and it’s not all perfect as the opening, sultry Jimmy Choos, captures a designer fixated Blanche Dubois type character, in feisty form, but benefiting from a sympathetic, “O Cherie come and take a ride with me, You just need to clear out your mind, O mon cher, cuz I’ll go with you anywhere, Can’t we leave that demon behind?” There are gold capped teeth bared, pop bottles launched from hot-tin, garage rooftops, motel and truck stop assignations but, hey! When you’ve got a good pair of shoes, what’s the problem? There’s another troubled life at the heart of the stride piano waltz of J’ai Connais Pas too. But here the only one hurt is the jailbird seeking bar room anonymity, so there is forgiveness and perhaps the title also suggests their secret is safe.
Some of it seems lost in a dream-world, or an alternate misty reality. There’s even a return of that loping reggae beat to Blinded By The Hunt, with its gentle offbeat acoustic guitar, classic Hammond tones and gospel / hymnal inflections. The lyrics however seems a little unsure as she sings, “There’s just one way left for me, To find a little peace, And I know what I want, At least I tell myself, To set my heart on fire, With the love of someone else.” The Mark Howard produced Infinity ticks with a clockwork motor around which Rickie lays out a gorgeous melody and wonders about the ever rotating cogs, while warping time’s linear flow to her purpose. Mark’s also at the controls for the glorious string drenched waltz of I Wasn’t Here, as it soars ever heavenwards on the carefree updraft of its orchestration, with just the merest hint of an earthly discord of doubt at the end.
Things remain in the balance though as Haunted wants to keep an anxious hold on to life’s experiences, even the pain, just to feel alive, as the soft electric piano chords try and placate the nagging guitar riff. Christmas In New Orleans invites Dickens’ ghosts to a bar room scene that has a mystical quality as Rickie sounds at her most fragile singing, “So when you’re lost out here, on The Other Side Of Desire, Come on in and warm your hands on our eternal fire.” There’s some lovely slide guitar in the breakdown and the brass at the end at the end sounds festively sozzled. Juliette is simply about the destructive powers of nature, but the looming threat of a hurricane is brief and simply, almost casually, stated over piano and bass clarinet as if to emphasise how powerless we are to halt it.
There’s the Cajun inflected country waltz of Valtz De Ma Pere (Lover’s Waltz), which captures our fleeting, fickle moments of amore while acknowledging mortality, yet still offering the hope that the good heart will live on in the generations to come. Best of all, however, Feet On The Ground, is a parental view of love, which triumphs despite the tribulations and doubts and even the slight ring of jealousy and control in, “Now she calls you on the phone, She’s never there alone, Who is he, why is he there, that man?” The Chorus with the extra male voices drafted in to change the perspective is a thing of elegant construction and real beauty. The balance to all of this support and affection comes in the wonky cabaret of Finale: (A Spider In The Circus Of A Falling Star) in which the mother must willingly sacrifice herself to feed her young.
You could say that we are all Rickie’s children in that regard and here to be nourished by The Other Side Of Desire. Again she expands on that idea in her blog with thoughts about empathy and the connections people make to her music. Quite early in the piece she concludes, “…we try to fit emotion into the very little library of words we have learned. But there are not words to describe what we feel. Words do not serve us. And so music is much closer to a language, a resonating of the real speaking of emotion.” Words! Just words! A little over 2,000 of them, but I got there in the end. Take the short cut, buy the record.
Review by: Simon Holland
Released 29 June 2015 via The Other Side Of Desire Music
Order via Amazon