Rickie Lee Jones
The Evening Of My Best Day


Does anybody still remember Rickie Lee Jones? And (more important): Does anybody still care? Jones's path was a strange one, but one that was definitely not impossible to foresee: commercially doomed by her first album's (Rickie Lee Jones, 1979) colossal, totally unpredictable (and obviously impossible to replicate) success, fuelled by the megahit Chuck E.'s In Love. On that first album, the singer sported a vocal timbre and a way of phrasing that were quite personal (which doesn't mean that her influences, while not flaunted, were that difficult to hear), and a repertory which nicely swam the various currents of modern American popular music.

But the young musician (Jones was born in 1954) refused to duplicate the successful formula of her first record, deciding instead to continue nurturing her artistic growth - the same path travelled by an artist whose work Rickie Lee Jones deeply knew: Laura Nyro. Hence, a follow-up album (Pirates, 1981) that was more cerebral, enigmatic and complex than what the majority of the American audience were ready to accept, though in time the album has proved to have been an important example for some young singers/songwriters who at the time were working on their craft (for instance, Suzanne Vega).

The usual (and widely publicly discussed) "personal problems" made commercial success more difficult to reach, though very good albums were released - check The Magazine (1984), the Walter Becker-produced Flying Cowboys (1989) and Traffic From Paradise (1993).

Then, something changed: During the last ten years only one album of new original material was released: Ghostyhead (1997), with its trip-hop experiments. Two very good albums of covers (Pop Pop, released in 1991, and It's Like This, released in 2000), plus two albums recorded live (Live At Red Rocks, the most recent, was released in 2001) tell of a writer's block - here we could talk at length about how certain kind of fuels, so dangerous for one's physical health, can be nourishment for one's artistic survival. Whatever the reason(s), the impulse for Rickie Lee Jones's recent rebirth seems to have been one that - given the highly "personal" nature of her art - on paper appeared to be very unlikely: George W. Bush becoming president of the USA, and that country's political evolution.

So The Evening Of My Best Day could be defined as her "civil rights" album, in ways that connect to the 1960s and within a stylistic framework that longtime fans will easily recognize. The opening track, Ugly Man, dedicated to Bush, has an air of a sing-along; an R&B push animates Little Mysteries; and a gospel-like "call and response" gives strength to Tell Somebody (Repeal The Patriot Act). (By the way, there are no lyrics in the booklet, but visiting the website furnitureforthepeople.com makes it possible to read the song lyrics and to watch some images related to the topics of the songs.)

The nice vocal and instrumental performances of It's Like This had made me long for an album of original material that possessed the same quality of recording, since the instrumental and vocal timbres were superb. So I'm very glad to report that in this particular department The Evening Of My Best Day fully delivers. She must have spent a lot of money (her own, I suspect), but it's the artistic intelligence at work that's really important: a track like Second Chance - stylistically not too distant from Steely Dan (an album by the group appears to have been referred to in the lyrics) - makes one realize how much a similar use of the digital machines could have improved Becker & Fagen's last couple of albums. The instrumental timbres are quite nice and always pertinent, from Ken Wollesen drums (listen to the brushes!) (the Bill Frisell trio being featured on two tracks) to the winds and reeds (you remember Jerry Hey, right?), from the background vocals (Syd Straw, Eric Benet, Grant Lee Phillips, Ben Harper) to the piano and organ (Neil Larsen, Gregg Phillinganes), from acoustic and electric basses, drums and percussions that are lively and natural (listen to James Gadson's bass drum) to dobro, dulcimer, acoustic guitars and mandolins. I'd like to add that the somewhat rigid quality that was peculiar to some performances by the sessionmen of the "mellow mafia" on her classic albums has been replaced by a more elastic groove - though one could add that her more recent material lacks the structural asymmetrical idiosyncrasies so peculiar of some of her previous compositions.

There's a certain 1960s air blowing on this record, which sports many styles "Made in America": blues, ballads, gospel, jazz and so on, with a first part that's more lively and a second part that's (relatively speaking) a bit more intimate. The Evening Of My Best Day is a grower, thanks to a recording and mixing work that reveals more and more arrangement touches with every listening session. My favourite tracks? Besides the already mentioned Second Chance and the gospel-tinged Tell Somebody, I particularly liked the blues of Lap Dog, with co-producer David Kalish on dobro and Syd Straw on background vocals; the "Celtic ballad" Sailor Song (on a Beth Orton CD it would be an impossible-not-to-mention gem); the bossa It Takes You There, a track that receives the proper amount of forward motion by Pete Thomas's drums; Mink Coat At The Bust Stop, where the bluesy, harmonica-heavy A section opens up on a B section that's highly reminiscent of the Laura Nyro/Curtis Mayfield axis; the intimate title-track; and A Face In The Crowd, which closes the album wisely throwing it off-balance.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2003

CloudsandClocks.net | Oct. 23, 2003