Rickie Lee Jones is one of the most remarkable and distinctive voices in American pop music. And though she is primarily known for the jazzy snap and rubber-band vocals of songs like “Easy Money” and “Chuck E’s in Love”, her career has covered its share of left turns. The obvious example, 1997’sGhostyhead, was a trip-hop experiment that showed that Jones’s singular style could work in more than one context. Other records — the all acoustic Naked Songs, the jazz standards on Pop Pop, the pan-generational covers on It’s Like This — have reinforced the fact that Rickie Lee is unpredictable even as she is always herself.
Even in that context, The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard is a departure. The headline, perhaps, is this: Rickie Lee Jones has recorded a lo-fi album of Christian music. But it’s more complicated than that.
Exposition Boulevard started as a book by photographer and writer Lee Cantelon, a friend of Jones’s who did the cover photo for Naked Songs. The book, The Words, is a contemporary take on Christ’s teachings, and in 2005 Cantelon recruited guitarist Peter Atanasoff to create music tracks over which various artists and regular folks would be recruited to read the text. When Jones came in, however, she chose to improvise new words — and her own melody — atop the backing tracks. The results, which apparently took over the project and hijacked the original effort, can be heard here as about half of the Exposition Boulevard tracks.
This half of the album — produced by Atanasoff and Cantelon — sounds primitive and amateurish, lo-fi, low budget, even peculiar. The first track, “Nobody Knows My Name”, is a three-chord vamp with a Velvet Underground drone over which Rickie Lee spins a lonely tale that sometimes cries with her distinct vocal wail. “Gethsemane” has a slightly more musical arrangement, with some backing vocals to emphasize the swing of Jones’s voice, but it remains sonically basic. “Donkey Ride” features freak-folk acoustic guitar and odd vocal phrases that sound like words twisting in the indie-rock wind. And “Road to Emmaus” is entirely wordless — a free-form acoustic rock jam that might feature Rickie Lee humming, cooing, gurgling or just snapping her fingers. It’s a sketchy, sometimes exciting, often lost group of songs. Maybe it is 20% successful, and maybe that’s not enough.
Apparently this work sat on the shelf for a while — understandably so. Then Jones recruited producer Rob Schnapf to take the same musicians and to get together some compatible but — uh — better music to get the project out on record store shelves. Good idea, perhaps.
This second group of songs, which are sprinkled throughout the sequence of the album, are much more successful, soulful, and catchy as pop songs — they contain some hooks and songcraft: crescendos, backing harmonies, memorable licks. As each one appears, you think: what a relief. For example, the third track (“Falling Up” — the first single) has a catchy chorus and a nifty little synthesizer line that makes all the difference. It’s no “Chuck E.” but, then, it’s not supposed to be. “It Hurts” seems like a RLJones rock song, with the distinctive, nasal voice building up a little steam until it cries: “It hurts to be here, it hurts to be here!”
Still, there are only two or three songs here that seem like they deserve company with Jones’s better work. “Seventh Day” begins out of tempo and acoustic, with Rickie Lee warbling in lo-fi intimacy. Then the tune locks into a simple groove that returns to our girl a smidge of the funky, syncopated groove that makes her best songs unique and irresistible. “Elvis Cadillac” stacks up Rickie Lee vocal tracks into the kind of lovely chorus singing that worked so well on older albums. The lyrics are direct and funny — a depiction of heaven through the lens of rock and roll. And with a perfect addition of an electric piano toward the end, the song recaptures a bit of the classic RLJones sound without going too Steely Dan on you.
Some of the other Schnapf-produced songs are just as tedious as the originals. The song bound to either captivate or bore you is “I Was There”, a track that the publicity materials for The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard go out of their way to compare to Van Morrison on Astral Weeks. (There, I have dutifully repeated their claim, just like they hoped I would.) Jones seems to be improvising the lyrics on the spot, getting off some great lines (“There’s Frank Sinatra on the keyboards…”) but also not entirely making sense. Jones seems to be in a vocal trance, singing line after line for over eight minutes, focusing finally on someone she’s singing to — “There you are in your write dress shirt / Most of all I think I love your hands / I love so much that it hurts / And all the bartenders knew your name / And all the pimps knew your car / And we lay by the night and we were blessed, yes we are / You tell them I was there / When Jesus walked.” But then there is Babylon and planets swirling and on and on it goes — seemingly very significant and powerful but also maybe just endless — eight minutes and 21 seconds of endlessness.
That said, if any artist has earned your patience, maybe it is the singular and uncompromising Rickie Lee Jones. “I Was There” is tedious, but it means more the second time you listen to it, and maybe more still on listen five or ten (if you are dutiful and trusting and, overall, patient). And the record as a whole — lo-fi or not — is so much more than a crass attempt to “go indie” or a surface religious conversion. The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard is a sincere and uncalculated attempt to do something serious and different and non-commercial. As pop or rock music, honestly, it succeeds only a quarter of the time. But there is more to life than making a great pop record, particularly if — like Rickie Lee Jones — you’ve already made three or four pop masterpieces.
The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, something else entirely, pursues its non-pop agenda without embarrassment. If you’re so inclined, here it is.