Duchess of Coolsville (and a note on Laura Nyro)

The Wall Street Journal’s Jim Fusilli has a good piece on the new Rickie Lee Jones three-disc retrospective: “Rickie Lee Jones and her restless muse” (subscribers only). Fusilli writes:

Back in 1979, singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones scored a huge hit with “Chuck E’s in Love” from her eponymous debut album, which merged folk, jazz and blues with a generous dollop of Beat Generation attitude. Ms. Jones’s music seemed to present an artist already fully formed, one who would continue to straddle the line between commercial pop and high-minded expression. At the time, she was 25 years old…
But Ms. Jones confounded expectations, following a muse that took her beyond easy classification and the pop charts. Though she’s yet to recapture such mass commercial success…Ms. Jones did something much better. She fashioned a remarkably rich body of work, as evidenced in the new anthology “Duchess of Coolsville” (Rhino), a steal at a list price of $31.98.
So much is striking about the new three-disk set, and foremost is the number of great songs and performances among its 48 tracks. Programmed by Ms. Jones and Rhino’s Karen Ahmed, it ignores chronology or theme. Key, tempo and mood are the guides, and invariably the glow of the previous song remains as the next one begins, perhaps because Ms. Jones will toy with time and mood throughout a single track, creating four- and five-minute suites. In the anthology, larger suites seem to emerge as songs flow into each other: the chipper “It Must Be Love” from 1984’s “The Magazine” eases into “Living It Up” from the 1981 masterpiece album “Pirates”; “The Last Chance Texaco,” a brooding tune from her debut, ushers in the rhythmic “Tigers” from 1993’s “Traffic From Paradise.” “Skeletons” from “Pirates” seems to flow from “Scary Chinese Movies,” though the latter was culled from an album released 16 years later. Ms. Jones’s songs are linked by quality and invention, both of which are the product of a strong, overarching artistic vision…
The third disk of “Duchess of Coolsville” finds Ms. Jones emptying the attic, offering previously unreleased live performances, demos and songs from outside projects. With less gifted artists, such largesse is cause for listener regret, but the material is up to her standards and includes her version of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” and a powerful live reading of the troubling “Evening of My Best Day.” The solo demo of “Easy Money,” which could have been recorded by Bessie Smith had it been written in the ’20s instead of the ’70s, reveals her confidence and resolve. After 48 tracks, the set ends too soon…

I listented to all three discs several times over the weekend and concur with Fusilli’s judgment, though the discs’ many high spots are also interspersed with what sound to me at first listen like stretches of inconsequential noodling.
Listening to the set as a whole, I was most struck by what seemed to me the almost palpable influence of Laura Nyro, an artist whose highest level of inspiration and creativity came in a relatively brief burst. Laura Nyro rings my chimes; I love her work. Listening to Rickie Lee Jones renewing herself over and over during the twenty-five year period represented on the three discs is all the more impressive by contrast with the flickering flame of the great Laura Nyro.
Here are a few footnotes, perhaps of interest. For a little biographical background on Rickie Lee, click here. For more on Chuck E., click here.
NOTE on LN: Reader Tony Groble remembers:

I was fortunate to see Laura Nyro perform several times before her death (including a very small club, where I swear I was the one straight guy in the room


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