A Great Artist Pauses to Reflect on Pop Music
To Rickie Lee Jones’ most devoted fans – and I am clearly among them – she has been on a real roll lately. Stunning records like Balm in Gilead and The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard are some of her most interesting, knotty works, returning her to her avant-garde tendencies in ways that also sound just as organic as her beatnik jazz early days. So it was a little surprising that she was coming out with another covers album. Not because she’s never done this before, because she has, most notably with Pop Pop and It’s Like This. But these records usually come out when she needs a new inspiration for her own next step. Are we to infer that she’s stuck again? Fortunately, The Devil You Know doesn’t really sound like a “stuck” record. But neither is it an especially original one. The song choices are pretty predictable, surveying tracks by the Rolling Stones, the Band and Neil Young, among others. I mean, come on – anyone covering “The Weight” and “Sympathy for the Devil” in 2012 is showing some serious stones.
But Rickie Lee Jones has earned the benefit of our doubts, so we can only assume that she’s got something on her mind. The Devil You Know aims to strip away all the trappings of these classic songs and get to the heart of the matter. “Sympathy for the Devil,” for instance, loses all its percussive boogie, the “woo-hoo” interjections, and everything that has clung to it for so long. Here, it is turned into a folk song, at first backed by only acoustic guitar and a couple of muted bongo hits every couple of measures, and later joined only by accordion and guitar drones. What remains is a crooned and croaked and muttered vocal that strikes to the heart of the matter: the banality of evil, the repetition of human nastiness throughout the ages. Leave it to RLJ to turn one of our most cherished rock songs into a meditation on Hannah Arendt, no?
Other covers take the same approach, but in surprising new ways. Her version of the Donovan song “Catch the Wind” is much lighter and airier, as one might imagine. She actually sings this one, but it never sounds anything but intimate and personal. Her countrified take on Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” is meditative, measured, folksy, and benefits from wandering gypsy violins.
The record is helmed by her friend and collaborator Ben Harper, who has a pretty high-powered career of his own. He also contributed an original song called “Masterpiece,” which he wrote explicitly for Jones. It is the most “produced” track on the record, with a discernible bassline and gently strummed acoustic guitar. It is also her most impressive performance as a vocalist, with a level of sexy abandon not found elsewhere. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of a song, but it does okay – at least at first.
Because as striking as some of these cover versions are, they do not necessarily stand up to repeated listens. What at first sounds airy and minimalist later ends up just seeming ... weary, something Rickie Lee’s cover versions have never sounded before. (Her takes on Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids” and Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”, for example.) After one or two listens to “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, one longs for the original, or for a ripping solo of some kind, or a higher energy level, or a radical new take, or something. Other than the force of Jones’ personality, there is nothing new in “The Weight”; there is not much to love in her cover of Van Morrison’s “Comfort You” except the fact that it starts out a capella before adding gentle guitar noises – which add nothing of substance.
The spunkiest thing here is, shockingly, an essay on the old New Orleans chestnut “St. James Infirmary”. Here, Jones puts on a master class in how to sing the hell out of a song. Here is all the growl, all the grit, all the guts that one associates with this great musical artist. Maybe reaching a little further back into the past would have worked a little better – maybe finding a producer who doesn’t try quite so hard to sand off all the rough edges would help too.