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by Dan Grunebaum

Conversion

Rickie Lee Jones gets political on her new album.

There's a point not to far into American singer Rickie Lee Jones's new album-in the first verse of the first song in fact-that makes one do a double take. Could this be the insouciant piano girl that brought us 1979's gently mocking, "Chuck E's in Love?"

The song, "Ugly Man," doesn't pull any punches. As soon as Jones lilts into her first verse, we get a strong hint as to who the target is: "He's an ugly man/he always was an ugly man/he grew up to be like his father/an ugly man." And just in case we had our doubts, she soon puts them to rest, delivering in deadpan style the lyric, "Revolution/now it's finally going to come/everywhere that you're not looking/Revolution."

In a brief email interview from Los Angeles, Jones is equally pointed. Passing over a number of queries about her music technique and style, she responds forcefully to a question about the several political songs on The Evening of My Best Day. "I am worried about political change and what is happening in this country," she begins. "I am involved because I think G. W. Bush and [John] Ashcroft and the lot are very, very bad for this country."

In addition to "Ugly Man," she takes on Republican trickle-down economics in "Second Chance," the controversial 2000 election in "Little Mysteries," and the post-9/11 Patriot Act in "Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act)."

Jones says that she could no longer remain silent in the face of what she calls the terrible polarization of the US, the loss of its allies, symptoms, she says, of a deadly force that has taken over the country. "I am not a protest singer," she notes. "I used to be adamant that politics did not belong with my music, because music is a spiritual movement, meant to reach all people."

CD cover photo caption: The cute girl on the cover is homeless and lives next to a Los Angeles freeway

Yet the fact that things are not business as usual, she says, forced her to speak out. "These times are not like any other," she writes. "To be silent now would be like being silent when the Nazis took over."
Fighting words for a woman whose best-known work is her rather personal self-titled debut, and its 1981 follow-up, Pirates, which charted the inner evolution of someone coming to terms with change and death.
But fortunately, Jones's message is delivered in a joyous musical stealth missile that leads to the aforementioned double take. In the company of such stellar sidemen as guitarists Bill Frisell and David Kalish, and backing vocalists like Ben Harper, she offers a sublime riposte to younger, jazz-influenced pop singers of the moment such as Norah Jones.

"Little Mysteries" and the equally deadly "Mink Coat at the Bus Stop" are lowdown, greasy jazz-blues numbers that won't take no for an answer, while "Second Chance" wraps its barbed study of a sex offender in breezy grooves that recall the best of Steely Dan.

"I can definitely understand political songs being tedious," Jones says. "Luckily, mine are not. I would not want to hear songs about what is going on today unless they were rather humorous and smart and musical."
Amen to that. Released in Japan on Richard Branson's V2, The Evening of My Best Day has been widely acclaimed since it hit the stores in October, with many critics praising it as her best work in decades. It also marks the pinnacle of a comeback from a creative drought that Jones, now 49, suffered in the '80s after struggling with alcoholism and then giving birth to her daughter.

The Chicago-born Jones was never anything less than unconventional. The daughter of a horn player who was himself the son of a Vaudevillian, Jones grew up in a variety of western locales before being expelled from school, leaving home and drifting up and down the West Coast, apparently developing a booze habit in the process. Settling in LA, she lived in the Tropicana Hotel with Chuck E. Weiss and Tom Waits, working as a waitress while perfecting her Beat poet-influenced, spoken-word vocal style. After Jones came to the attention of former Little Feat frontman Lowell George, it wasn't long before her demo made its way to Warner Brothers, which signed her for her smash debut.

Jones's background may very well have influenced her choice of a cover shot for the album, which depicts a small girl on a blanket who Jones reveals is homeless. "I saw a photo shoot in the LA Times about families who live next to freeways, and there was just something about this particular family. I got in touch with the photographer and we had him shoot some pictures for the album as well."

Looking back on more than two decades in the business, Jones reflected on the many changes that have affected music, some positive, some negative. "When I started, the music business was an extension of music, of musicians… That died," she says.Ê "It was taken over by non-musician businessmen. Now they have run it into the ground,Êand [then] the Internet and great minds stole the music out from under these greedy bastards. I like the idea of the Internet,Ê[but] I also like the idea from back then of a large package,Êalbum size, with great art. It was fun. I miss it."

Rickie Lee Jones plays Bunkamura Orchard Hall on March 26. See concert listings for details.

Main photo credit: Smash
CD cover photo credit: Gregg Segal

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