CD Review

Rickie Lee Jones: The Duchess of Coolsville: An Anthology (Rhino Records 2005)

It was the summer of 1979. I was sixteen years old, on vacation, on Vancouver Island, sleeping in my orange tent with my brother while Mom and Dad slept in the Pace Arrow motorhome, swimming in the ocean all afternoon and playing mini golf in the evenings, barbeque fish for dinner. Even then, I was a magazine junkie, and a music addict. I had my portable record player (mono) and I was listening to Blondie, Olivia Newton John, Supertramp, Toto, Linda Ronstadt, Foreigner, Van Halen, Cheap Trick, Dire Straits, the Cars, Nick Lowe, Little River Band, the Knack, Chic, Donna Summer, and the Bee Gees.

"Creem" magazine was good, (and more sexy), but "Rolling Stone" was my bible, and Rickie Lee Jones was on the cover. Her debut album had just been released, and "Chuck E's In Love" was on the radio constantly (supposedly written about Chuck E Weiss, an LA artist who released several of his own albums a few years ago). I had never heard anyone like her. Her voice seemed just on the edge of cracking, and her style was an amazing blend of Paul Simon pop, Steely Dan jazz, and Ella Fitzgerald scat, and if not for the fact that the lyrics were printed right on the back of the lp jacket, I would have not understood a word of what I was hearing.

Each of these songs was a story, each story was a world unto itself, a world from the streets and bars of Los Angeles; a world that completely fascinated me, a boy from the prairies of Northern Canada. Rickie's characters were alive to me; Chuck "E" (who was in love, with me!), the desparate, junkie mom in "Night Train," "I and Bragger and Junior Lee" in Coolsville, bartender Cecil from Danny's All Star Joint; they were such vivid characters, they stuck with me, they played out in mini-plays in my head. Soundtrack provided by the finger snappin jukebox that went "Doyt Doyt," and made "your be-bop bap and your r&b hep scat." I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded wonderful.

Twenty six years later, it's the summer of 2005, and all week I've been listening to my Rickie Lee Jones 3 CD set which arrived on Monday (released in the US next Tuesday June 28). This is her first collection, and includes a sampling of music from each of her albums, from her early material on Warner Brothers, through several mid-80s albums on Geffen, a couple more on Reprise in the 90's, and now signed to V2.

It seemed with all these labels in the mix, there could never be a comprehensive RLJ collection. But somehow, Rhino has pulled it all together, and the set is produced by Rickie herself. It's always interesting when an artist has input on their own compilations; one would think, at least, that this is what they consider to be their "best," or strongest work to date.

This package includes six tracks from her brilliant first album (self titled), six tracks from her stunning second album "Pirates," and a sampling of one to three tracks from each of her subsequent releases, including "It's Like This", her 2000 album of covers, and her latest (and remarkable) release, "The Evening of my Best Day" from 2004, and all in alphabetical order!

Disc three in the set is an eclectic assortment of rare collaborations not on any RLJ album, plus some live tracks (including some from her Japanese only live album, "Girl at her Volcano") and seven previously unreleased demos.

The anthology is the first representation of any of RLJ's music in remastered form. Whenever I need a good cry, I'll listen to the first three tracks from "Pirates," all included here. Remind me to check my kleenex supply before I listen to this remastered version, in the dark, the way great music should be heard, without distraction. Perhaps later tonight, if I'm feeling strong (or, is it weak?)

Particularly stunning is the material from the early albums; the production on her first album really shines through, distinct separation and clarity on the instrumentation and perhaps the first accurate reproduction of her unique, haunting voice. 1981's "Pirates," one of my all-time favorite albums, and despite having listened to it literally hundreds of times, this is the first time I really noticed the ORCHESTRA on "We Belong Together," and "Skeletons," and the moving "On Saturday Afternoons in 1963" from her first album. Both a guitar and keyboard player, the acoustic sound with these instruments is astounding.

The liner notes include a somewhat ethereal essay by Rickie herself, plus a couple lengthy essays, and commentary by her contemporaries including Tori Amos, Jewel, Quincy Jones, Fiona Apple, Michelle Shocked, Emmylou Harris, Randy Newman, Walter Becker and more.

As a fan, of course, I always want more. On the packaging are some scribblings of early track listings, which includes her quirky cover of David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel," which did not make the collection. Also not included are her covers of Steely Dan's "Show Biz Kids," and the Beatles' "For No One," all of which I would have added (and bumped some of the live material.) But that's me. I also would have included "It Takes You There" (from Evening of my Best Day), "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying (from Flying Cowboys), "A Lucky Guy" (from Pirates), "I won't Grow Up" (from Pop Pop), and "Night Train" and "Young Blood" from her first album.

But what is included is indeed brilliant. And tonight, I am listening to an album that I never thought I would have, Rickie Lee Jones "The Duchess of Coolsville: An Anthology." And I am loving it. Fresh kleenex on the stand-by.

Rod Reynolds
June 2005

© 2005 The Art Dept Los Angeles

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