[9 November 2009]
Balm in Gilead opens with a song called “Wild Girl”. Combining massed harmony vocals, doo-wop finger snaps, and skeletal jazz guitar chords, Rickie Lee Jones propels the song’s unconventional structure with her unique, airy voice, building to a stirring yet understated climax. It’s a hell of a way to begin an album, but the effect is diminished somewhat by the next song, “Old Enough”. Here she teams up with anonymous lantern-jawed singer-songwriter Ben Harper (more of a surfer type than Jason Blunt, less so than Jack Johnson) to produce the kind of bland, vaguely soulful tune you’d hear in a dentist’s office.
What these two songs suggest in miniature holds true for the album as a whole: stylistically, it’s all over the place, and it’s most successful when Jones delivers something unconventional or surprising. This is largely due to the sedate pacing and Jones’s meandering melodies. Neither of these is necessarily a bad thing on its own—after all, no one listens to Rickie Lee Jones to satisfy their thrash metal shredding fix, and the meandering melodies can be delightfully unpredictable, as long as they have someplace to meander to.
Take, for example, “His Jeweled Floor”. Here, Jones conjures a hymn-like atmosphere against a backdrop of droning strings, evoking the religious content (if not the grungy sound) of her 2007 album, The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard. Surprising production touches like accordion, banjo, and feedback create an air of mystery such that, despite its deliberate pace and six-minute runtime, it doesn’t even come close to overstaying its welcome.
On the other hand, “The Blue Ghazel” devotes nearly five minutes to the kind of bluesy groove that has colored a thousand nightclub scenes in a thousand forgettable movies. This would be forgivable if it actually went somewhere, but instead, it’s an instrumental diversion that kills the tenuous momentum established by “His Jeweled Floor” and the keening, string-driven “Eucalyptus Trail”. The album goes further off the rails with “The Gospel of Carlos, Norman, and Smith”. The accompanying press release bills this song as “a reflection on society’s racial injustices”, and it’s every bit as facile and tiresome as that description would suggest. Not offensively bad, but terminally uninteresting.
Thankfully, Balm in Gilead ends on a high note. The opening lyrics to “Bonfires” initially seem cloying, but Jones manages to sell them in the context of this unadorned acoustic song; what would seem twee instead comes across as direct and genuine, and by the time the phrase “You’re the sweetest boy I know” reappears around the three-minute mark, it’s actually kind of affecting. “Bayless Street”, the closer, isn’t quite as strong, but it weaves slide guitar into a seductively dusty atmosphere.
The most familiar stuff here is ultimately the least successful. The breezy blend of jazz, folk, and pop that characterized Rickie Lee Jones’ debut album back in 1979 seems played-out and staid when she revisits it 30 years later. The title of Balm in Gilead refers to a Bible verse promising a salve to “make the wounded whole”. If this album is intended as a therapeutic exercise first, then perhaps this review is a trifle harsh. But as music, it’s at its best when it seeks not to soothe, but to surprise or even discomfit.