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Rickie Lee Jones - Balm in Gilead

  by Lisa Torem

published: 25 / 6 / 2010

Rickie Lee Jones - Balm in Gilead
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Lisa Torem examines American singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones' 2009 and latest album, 'Balm in Gilead'

Chicago-born, California transplant and two-time Grammy winner Rickie Lee Jones received critical acclaim for the jazzy, beat performance brandished on ‘Chuck E’s in Love’ on her self-titled 1979 debut album. This ever-prolific singer-songwriter plunged herself, two years later, into the production of ‘Pirates’ on which she mastered more intensive songwriting gravitas, creatively exploring themes such as evolution and death. A few years later, Jones released 'Girl at Her Volcano', an EP of jazz standards and in 1984 'The Magazine' grew out of her working relationship with James Newton Howard. But, Jones's career backslid as a result of alcohol abuse and time spent becoming a mother. And, it wasn’t until 1989, the year that a famous wall came crashing down, that she rebuilt, brick by brick, her recording career, and, assisted by the Scottish trio, The Blue Nile, she released 'Flying Cowboys'. 2003 saw Jones roll back to self-penned bliss and angry political reflections on 'The Evening of My Best Day' and, just two years later, the wildly ambitious three-CD anthology 'Duchess of Coolville' sharpened that image of a quirky, heavenly-voiced, outside the boxer. 2001's 'Live at Red Rocks' centred on politics and 'The Sermon in Exposition Boulevard', based on Lee Cantelon’s 1997 book, 'The Words', in 2007, spawned confessional and mystical epiphanies, but kept the idiosyncratic Jones persona at a comfortable distance. A glimpse at random songs from Jones’ repertoire reveal songs like ‘Danny’s All-Star Joint’ which featured the squawk of horns, the energy of a blasting juke box and lines that accentuated place. “I’m in a halfway house on a one-way street,” she sung frankly. ‘Elvis Cadillac’ from 'The Sermon in Exposition Boulevard' revealed a youthful, but still superficial sensibility. Even ‘Flying Cowboys’ tried hard to incorporate American landscapes and cultural history, but concentrated more on open spaces than inner workings. But, with Jones most recent undertaking, the ten song, 'Balm in Gilead', released on the stiletto heels of Chuck E’s 30th anniversary, a scintillating renaissance takes place. The harsh sting of past growing pains and world weary haze dissolve, and in its place come wisdom and fragile personal discovery. Though past album material relied on buoyant themes and funk, Jones now proves that her inner sanctum is as deserving of introspection as any dogma or genre once explored ‘Balm in Gilead’ is pure magic. ‘Bonfires’ casts a sanguine spell. Sweet finger-picking and emotional heat drives this story-song’s stakes higher and higher. “There’s just one thing before I go/You are the sweetest boy I know,” she incants purely. But, as this finely crafted song’s exposition deepens, the flames of discontent engulf. “You hurt me bad this time/I’m burning everything this time/I’m just a scavenger,” she proclaims, sadly, with blunt delivery, against plaintive dronings of an acoustic guitar. ‘Wild Girl’ is an up-beat celebration written to her daughter Charlotte Rose on her 21st birthday. “Your mama must have let you run free/But it wasn’t very nice eating all that sugar and spice,” Jones wise-cracks, in the early verse. Finger snapping rips against Rickie’s escalating vocal climb as she joyously announces, “Tomorrow you are 21 years old.” ‘The Moon is Made of Gold’ was a lullaby penned by Jones’ own father, Richard Loris Jones. The performance is just as stunningly touching as what the title itself suggests. What makes 'Balm in Gilead' distinctly different from previous work is the role that the passage of time played. Many of the themes and lyrical fragments, that arrive fully fleshed-out in the album, had been brewing for more than twenty years. But, sometimes procrastination is a good thing. There is no quick-change artistry apparent here. And, Jones readily admits that her process for creating ‘Balm in Gilead’ resembled what’s often required for making a debut; lots of harrowing, but hopefully, healing self-examination. That said, the lyrics fuse with a a panoply of style; 'Balm in Gilead' accentuates Jones’ flair for combining country twang, touches of gospel, swing, jazz and a heartfelt tug at the American folk song idiom. But, the styles remain subtly transparent because the emotional renderings are what consistently coarse through her veins. While Jones plays guitar masterfully and her voice packs power and sensitivity, she stretches herself instrumentally too. In the chorally generous ‘His Jewelled Floor,’ other than bass and accordion, she plays all the instruments herself. Guest artists Ben Harper, with whom Jones shares a captivating duet on ‘Old Enough,’ Alison Krauss and Vic Chestnut, stellar talents in their own right, don’t merely come along for the wild ride, but they don’t overshadow the beauty of Jones’ distinct voice either. ‘Eucalyptus Trail’ is as powerfully scented and rich in prose as the title suggests. The closer ‘Bayless St’ is bathed in mandolin and slide guitar; sort of a soulful post-mortem after so many startling confessionals. ‘Balm in Gilead’ does more than artfully redefine Rickie Lee Jones. This album might just also reflect how the glee of a wild child and the sophisticated chops of a wise woman are not mutually exclusive. It is, in fact, this bewildering dichotomy that makes ‘Balm in Gilead’ so gloriously genuine.

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Rickie Lee Jones - Balm in Gilead

Rickie Lee Jones - Balm in Gilead

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