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24 September 2012

Review: The Devil You Know by Rickie Lee Jones

Posted by at 3:06 PM Read our previous post
I  have been in love with Rickie Lee Jones since I was twelve.
It was summer.  I was a "fresh-off-the-boat" jíbaro immigrant kid lost in New York City. For some reason that I can't recall (I reckon my mom must have had an interview or a meeting or something), I was under the care and charge of one of my uncles that day. Tio Maelo's idea of babysitting was to take me along with him to one of his favorite pool halls in Spanish Harlem. It was still early afternoon, so when we got there, the place was empty except for a handful of barflies, his friends.  Maelo handed me a roll of quarters and left me alone to play pool on one of the tables in the place while he drank and cavorted with his friends, talking about whatever it is that Puerto Rican drinking buddies talked about back then. Probably  women and boxing, is my guess. 
Near the pool table, facing it, there was an enormous jukebox, one of those old ones that played 45 RPM singles. This was the perfect way to drown out all the Boricua bravado and drinking coming from the direction of the bar.   I was a twelve year old kid with a pool table, a jukebox, and a roll of quarters at my disposal.  I was in heaven.  I got to it.  I'd always loved music and jukeboxes, something happened that day to my not-yet-adolescent brain. I don't recall how many songs I had listened to before I finally stumbled onto a Rickie Lee Jones record that day, but once I did, I just kept playing that one 45, over and over again, for the rest of the afternoon (the a-side was "Chuck E's in Love"/ the b-side was "Danny's All Star Joint"), while I played long solitaire games of billiards one after the other. For some reason, the sound and general texture of her voice drew me in, moved me enough to experience her music in a way that was deeper than had been my experience with the pop and Latin musics that I had grown up with and was used to hearing before then. I was entranced. There was something about her music that compelled me to alternate between those two songs again and again. I have no idea all these years later what other songs might have been in that jukebox that day, but I onlt remember two..  Tio Maelo had little to do with my epiphany, other than providing me with the quarters I needed. I never quite developed any kind of close relationship with that particular uncle, he was not really a central figure in my life before that or since.  Thinking back, I probably drove those guys in that bar crazy that day, playing those two songs repeatedly. Oh well. No one complained, so I guess they didn't find it too disagreeable.
So, it was completely serendipitous that I should connect with a work of art as intensely as I did at that age. If it weren't for this musical moment, I probably would have no memory at all of that particular afternoon.   Funny how one seemingly random moment in time can affect a whole lifetime's course, though. 
I see that day as one of the milestones which would eventually inspire me to become a musician. There was something bold and sublime and dangerous in her phrasing that I took notice of. It caught me off guard.  It had qualities that I now appreciate in the great performers. Fearlessness. Recklessness. 
The music of Rickie Lee Jones, like that of other vital artists of their time, is resistant to easy categorization. Equal parts traditionalist and iconoclast, her recordings over the years span a wide gamut of styles and genres ranging from soft ballads to strident walls of sound.
Those who have followed her career know that Rickie Lee makes a couple of different kinds of albums.
When her muses and juices are overflowing, she often produces hauntingly lyrical albums with smart arrangements and meticulously crafted mixes of graceful color and style.  This type of record is gorgeous ( "Traffic From Paradise." "Evening of my Best Day."  ). It is the type of Rickie Lee Jones album that makes for lifelong fans.  When she decides to make tone poems that take advantage of sublime orchestration, she is truly one of the greats.

But Rickie also makes another kind of album now and then. The kind that features her interpretations of songs that are standards spanning the pop era. These records are not as lushly produced as are her original compositions generally, but they still provide a great view of her as interpreter and song stylist.

"The Devil You Know" is one of those records. It is basically a collection of cover tunes.

My biggest regret about this record is that it opens so disorientedly, with a lackluster rendition of Jagger's "Sympathy for the Devil."  The tune choice is not objectionable in itself. It's a good tune.  But while her other selections are given treatments in which the songs remain recognizable even through all the stylistic liberties taken in interpreting them, "Sympathy" sounds like a free improvisation, completely divorced from the original tune. It feels forced to me and it did not really grab me until five and a half minutes in, when she goes into a beautifully visceral falsetto motif vaguely echoing the original version's feel for a few gorgeous moments. But then it all just ends before anything more happens.  To be fair, in a recent interview, Rickie said that she "acts out" that song live, so maybe I am missing some theatrical cues that are lost in translation.

Despite this awkward opening track, however, the rest of the album actually has some lovely, unique, sometimes quite beautiful renditions of cover tunes, all done in Rickie Lee Jones' idiosyncratic, inimitable style.   She lends a tragic urgency to "St. James Infirmary", a song that is usually performed by jazz artists in a more showy, vaudevillian way. Rickie's take on it is desolate. Powerful.
The other Stones tune that she sings on this set ("Play With Fire") is haunting. There's no harpsichordy psychedelia in sight here. In her hands, the song is a stern defiant warning to a would-be adversary, not a pop song at al.
Loosely conceived and loosely executed, I suspect that this is an album that only die-hard fans of Rickie will really get.   "The Devil You Know" is a great addition to the collection of all Rickie lovers, but it is not the cohesive masterpiece that her fans know she is capable of producing. Decidedly unpolished, it won't appeal much to today's average music consumer, who has to be told what is good by committee, I'm afraid (American Idol, anyone?).
 I truly hope, for all of our sakes, that Rickie still has at least one or two more masterpieces left in her, because her best work hits hard.  She's a badass.  She really is that amazing of an American artist.    One of the greatest.  Anyone who knows, knows. Anyone who doesn't know, will not be convinced by this record, however. 

          (3 of 5 stars)


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