Rickie Lee Jones
The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard (New West)
Her 1979 debut album won Rickie Lee Jones some fast-track Top 40 ubiquity back in the day before kooky Los Angeles bohemia got codified by Sheryl Crow, and when unfettered songwriter types could still find an audience on mainstream radio. All along, though, Jones probably had more in common with, say, Cat Power—and we don’t mean the kookiness. Rather, her true ambition as an artist had so little to do with exterior trappings or timeliness, and everything to do with a wobbly journey toward self-revelation.
With that in mind, Jones’s new song cycle is perhaps not as surprising as it may sound. She’s adapted sections of The Words, an unusual collection of teachings attributed to Jesus, stripped to their essential message. The improvisatory, loose-jointed approach Jones chooses makes songs such as “Elvis Cadillac” resonate more like the soul- and gospel-inspired rock of early-’70s Van Morrison than anything remotely preachy. More often than not, the project frees the singer to rock out like she rarely has, evoking some of Tom Waits’s hobo hoodoo on “Tried to Be a Man,” and exploring the uses of discordant acoustic guitar on “Donkey Ride.” What’s cool is that Jones’s interest in ambient experiments and what, in some cases, were first takes, also leaves room for satisfying pop moves—like “Falling Up”—which hold their own with anything in her catalog. She tackles spiritual themes in ways that are anything but obvious, embracing the mystery while letting it be.—Steve Dollar
Rickie Lee Jones plays Portage Theater Saturday 24.