Four summers ago at Deep Ellum Live, the frustrated disappointment of the scattered fans was a pitch louder than the electronic bird sounds and shimmers coming from Rickie Lee Jones' accompanists as she spun around onstage amid candles and lamps. She'd pause at the microphone now and again to slur incantations about roadkill and falling spiderwebs in her breathy, against-the-rhythm, little-girl voice. You could tell most people hadn't read the advanced press announcing that her 1997 embrace of trip-hop, Ghostyhead (now out of print), marked not just a change in direction but a complete break with the past--from now on, Jones told interviewers, she would never again perform the old songs. If you revered a handful of albums from this fitfully brilliant musician, you weren't quite prepared for the watercolor way these long, ambient exercises bled together into one sludgy live canvas of tonal splotches.
Thank heaven for flaky artists. Jones is currently in the middle of a tour supporting last year's It's Like This, and selections from that and Ghostyhead help make up a solid two-hour career retrospective that's earned rave reviews in London, Glasgow and Los Angeles. You almost sympathize with Jones' urge to abandon her legacy, because its remarkable moments have been neglected by a record-buying public (no surprise there; Jones' clenched-jaw phrasing and torchy wail are automatic alienators of even those who gobble up Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow) and a music press whose job, in part, is to chronicle great artists through their meandering. The flatulent corpses of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison are disinterred with every release and carried through the streets on ceremonial thrones; Jones records a spare, hushed, self-produced cycle of songs--her last great work, 1993's Traffic From Paradise--that proved her facility with cowboy folk, reggae beats and synthesizer lullabies, and you'd think there was a music critics' strike that year if you search the backlog for coverage.
What followed Traffic were a sometimes touching if unnecessary live "best of" collection (Naked Songs), the trip-hop stumble and now It's Like This, which finds a smartly shuffling insouciance in Steely Dan's "Show Biz Kids," the hot-chocolate-bubbling menace of Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" and polished if somewhat perfunctory turns with other muses. Her best albums feel like dog-eared tour maps through her fanciful psyche, which is equal parts barroom balladeer and graffiti artist scribbling weird poetry under the overpass at night. The Magazine was a Laura Nyro-esque suite about love games and drug lifestyles; the Walter Becker-produced Flying Cowboys was the recorded equivalent of a Gus Van Sant movie, dusty and peopled with dreamers riding toward a flatland horizon on Jones' buoyant or mournful melodies. While not a chatty stage performer, she's the rare musician who's actually better live. Her voice is fuller and richer, her piano and guitar more nimble and expressive...and her dismissal by critics all the more baffling.