Coming out of semi-retirement a few years ago with a heartfelt album of cover songs, Rickie Lee Jones promoted it by playing a radio station party in Austin, Texas three months after September 11, 2001. She possessed a poised casualness about her (a trait still valued in Austin) as she stood on stage, guitar in hand jangling out John Fogerty’s anti-war ode “Fortunate Son”.
Odd to hear a rock classic coming out of her mouth, though the country was gearing up for battle and thoughts of war were part of the zeitgeist. “Ain’t no CIA son,” she sang in reference to George Bush, the junior president whose father headed the spy agency in the years before his own presidency. She never finished the Fogerty song, seemingly shy about mocking the president too much in his adopted hometown. Regardless, there were chills and cheers from the Texas crowd.
Now with her first album of original material in six years (since 1997’s experimental Ghostyhead), she has tackled political songwriting more overtly than ever in her career. The album opens with lushly sophisticated pop that one expects but the subject matter of “Ugly Man” is a direct lob at Bush, this time using Jones’s own words: “ he’s an ugly man / he grew up to be / just like his / father.” Juxtaposed against softly wailing trumpets and a gently rollicking piano, the harsh message is a bit of a musical disconnect but perhaps that’s the point she’s trying to make about the current state of affairs. In any case it’s a strange way to begin “The Evening of My Best Day”, whose title suggests the ease of enjoying a breezy afternoon, but if things seem schizophrenic it’s because they are. The hard-edged blues of “Mink Coat at the Bus Stop” alternately gives way to soft introspection for jarring effect; elsewhere the atmosphere often settles into jazzy grooves incorporating everything from flute in the lovely “Bitchenostrophy” to Dobro guitar on the bluesy “Lap Dog” to cello and English horn in “A Tree on Allenford”.
High profile guests abound fleetingly, such as Bill Frisell and David Hidalgo on guitars, Rob Wasserman on bass, and Pete Thomas on drums, but the evolving musicians are familiar enough with Jones’s modus operandi to sound like a coalescing whole throughout the dozen songs. Those yearning for the Rickie Lee of old will be able to celebrate too, because of the world-weary folk of “Sailor Song” and the elegantly poetic title track, with its rudimentary piano and delicate violin making it sound like a “Pirates” outtake (co-producer David Kalish also played and worked with Jones on that 1981 masterpiece). Back in a political vein, Jones has heart-on-her-sleeve success with “Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Acts Now)”, a jab at snoopy zealots as much as the lessening of individual rights in John Ashcroft’s America. It’s a heavily syncopated jam with righteous backup singers, Booker T-like organ, steadfast horns and handclaps all getting the message out. Though concise enough for radio, the tune obviously will not find an audience in these days of tightly restricted playlists. Even better is “Little Mysteries” which details the counting of votes in the last presidential election, and features enough guitars played by Jones alone (wah wah, sitar, slide, acoustic) to distract you from our modern morass.