The Coolsville Sermon

Unpredictable Rickie Lee Jones' new album explores the words of Jesus

February 08, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

She's called the Duchess of Coolsville, but Rickie Lee Jones has never been the calm, collected type. The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter is a restless soul, and her music has always reflected that -- twisting and turning in unexpected directions. Elements of disparate styles (jazz, punk, R&B) crash and melt into one another, sometimes all within the same song.

Her new album, The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, is typical Jones: challenging, dissonant, often brilliant. And like her classic early work, the lyrics are revealing and inspired. For the 13 songs on her new CD, which hit stores this week, Jones explores the words and ideas of Jesus Christ.

"I looked at this project as me looking down from heaven on my life," says the artist, who will perform cuts from Exposition Boulevard on Saturday night at the Avalon Theatre in Easton and Tuesday night at the 9:30 Club in Washington. "I saw 20 years of me being still. I needed to move, to just jump in and enjoy life."

Jones, 52, says she feels much more centered these days. She lives quietly on a 1-acre farm 25 miles outside of Hollywood. Her daughter, Charlotte, is 18, well-adjusted and living on her own. Over the years, Jones has overcome substance abuse and artistic frustrations and has somehow managed to keep her musical focus fresh and illuminating. On Exposition Boulevard, Jones' 13th album, the Los Angeles-based artist worked closely with producer Rob Schnapf, who has overseen projects by Elliott Smith, the Vines and Beck. She says this time the songwriting process was collaborative, something new to Jones, who in the past has generally written alone.

"In my life and my art, I think where I find my solace, that pearl of life, is with other people," she says. "I value company. Pretty soon, [the album] started to take its own shape. It was so new, so brilliant, so loving."

The improvisational element that has always informed Jones' approach invigorates Exposition Boulevard. Several cuts on the album -- "Nobody Knows My Name," "Donkey Ride," "Where I Like It Best" and "I Was There" -- were done stream-of-consciousness style in one take. The minimalist, punk-imbued arrangements shift and simmer under Jones' evocative ramblings.

"It will reveal itself in a wonderful way," the performer says of the new music. "It's not like the old stuff. For people who like the old stuff, I think they will like this new one."

Over the years, Jones' musical unpredictability has largely pushed her out of pop consciousness and into the realm of respected cult figure. But in 1979, when her self-titled debut appeared, she quickly became the darling of rock, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1979 and 1980. Her first album, which featured her best-known hit "Chuck E's in Love," sold platinum and garnered the singer a Grammy for best new artist. As a young songwriter, Jones was whip-smart with an impressive, sophisticated sense of subtlety and nuance. The Duchess of Coolsville tag came from her beatnik image, made iconic on the cover of her 1979 debut: Jones in a red beret, lighting a cigarette, a startling orange-and-gold California sunset behind her.

But the singer never repeated the commercial success of her debut. And the difficult, exploratory nature of subsequent releases -- Pirates (1981), The Magazine (1984) -- didn't fit with the neon, synth-crazed tastes of the day. So Jones drifted into pop oblivion, releasing albums every few years that drew little attention.

Exposition Boulevard probably won't make her a commercial powerhouse again. The record is too lyrically complex, too beautifully weird. You don't hear this kind of music on Clear Channel radio. But the best way to experience Jones' ever-shifting style is on stage.

"I usually do theaters, but this time out, we wanted to try the clubs," Jones says. "We want to present it in that club environment so that people can stand up and rock. We have to get our old butts up and dance. Live is what I do, you know. If you haven't heard me live, you haven't heard me."

See Rickie Lee Jones at Avalon Theatre, 40 E. Dover St., Easton, at 8 Saturday night. Tickets are $55 and are available by calling 410-547-SEAT or going to ticketmaster.com. She's also at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington at 7:30 Tuesday night. Tickets are $35 and are available at tickets.com. For more information, call 800-955-5566 or go to 930.com.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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