A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.
Rickie Lee Jones – Pop Pop
Few artists have made more of their first blush of fame than Rickie Lee Jones. Born in Chicago, raised in Arizona, Jones dropped out in 11th grade with a GED and was singing and busking on Venice Beach by the age of 18. By the time she was 21, she was associating/collaborating/hanging out with every interesting person in the LA singer-songwriter scene [Tom Waits, Dr. John, Randy Newman, Walter Becker…the lot]. Just as her self-titled debut album was released, Jones turned in a near legendary performance of the album’s first single “Chuck E’s in Love” on Saturday Night Live back when being the musical guest on SNL really meant something. Rickie Lee Jones sold platinum numbers [when that really meant something] and swept the grammys, leading to cover stories in Rolling Stone and Time Magazine [when that really meant something]. In almost no time, Jones conquered popular taste, sold a ton of records and filled her mantle with awards – all while keeping her street cred/snob appeal intact. Hey, there are former Beatles who couldn’t manage this, so show a little respect.
As the Billboard 1980s gave way to the Soundscan 90s, Jones made the most of her artist-in-residence status and did whatever she felt like. For a while she was still commercially successful, but the MTV era began to push aside the L.A.-centric, jazz-inflected AOR style that Jones emerged from, something Rickie Lee probably didn’t even notice when she went into the studio with known iconoclast David Was in the producer’s chair. Was and Jones recruited a diverse, highly pedigreed group of players to back her on an eclectic set of standards and covers. The singular, autumn-hued Pop Pop is the result.
Anchored by legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden and blues ace Robben Ford on nylon string guitar, Jones lets herself fall back into the waiting arms of the dozen songs. The opening track, Wood & Mellin’s “My One and Only Love” sets a luscious tone as Jones caresses the melody with her creamy, edgeless voice. Because she’s a natural chameleon, it’s hard to tell if she’s singing to us, to a passionate new flame, or to an irresistible, adoring child. Like anyone born in the 1950s, Jones comes to the Great American Songbook as living music people enjoyed in real time, and not the museum music it became once rock’n’roll began shaking the world. Her cover choices are eccentric without being pretentious and emotionally telling as she leans towards the longing/yearning side of romance. The spare, soft-focus tone of Was’ production lets her voice blossom in the hand-tinted romance of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” and “Hi Lilli Hi Lo,” making heartache seem like a pretty place to get a postcard from.
Pop Pop is a lot like spending a lazy afternoon browsing the record collection of a friend with musical tastes we never suspected. They morph the Jimi Hendrix’ rocker “Up From the Skies” into a laid-back stroll that wouldn’t feel out of place on Jones’ debut album while the Hutcherson/Brown novelty-standard “Dat Dere” feels cozy and sweet, not forced and cloying as it often does. Haden’s walking bass propels the normally maudlin “Bye Bye Blackbird,” coaxing a finger-snapping vocal that Anita O’Day would have smiled at. Jones cradles the weary romanticism of “The Second Time Around,” while sounding quietly reverent on rarely-covered “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” and kicks her heels through the jaunty, witty “I Won’t Grow Up,” which sounds like a much better song than we remember from all those community theatre renditions we’ve sat through.
Like a box of fireworks the cover art is nicked from, Pop Pop always has the potential to surprise us. The David Was/John Keller original “Love Junkyard” is a big one. It’s a heartbreaking set of metaphors drawing all our great romantic ideals down to an inventory of things no longer wanted. Seeing how easily our most cherished emotion can be spelled out by symbols and items is thrilling and saddening at the same time. Was and Keller stretch their lyric across a sweet, feathery melody and Jones pours her heart into it, her voice slipping into that space between a sob and a sigh. It always seems the best love songs tell us things we should already know about ourselves, but never seem to realize. How a song this perfectly pitched lies unknown and never covered is hard to fathom. Maybe other singers hear it and just concede that Rickie Lee owns it. Sure, let’s go with that story. Jones closes the record with an abstract take on Jefferson Airplane’s “Comin’ Back to Me,” a Marty Balin song that casts the melancholy and longing typical of so many standards in the language of the 60s rock that displaced the Songbook. It feels like a proposal for the music Jones would create from then on, with Pop Pop acting as a doorway/escape hatch to the next phase of her Art.
No matter her intention, Pop Pop should have been a huge success, perhaps even a genre definer. It climbed to #8 on the jazz charts, a likely sign the record was doomed in the mainstream. Peaking at #121 pop, it was Jones’ least successful release up to that point, and pretty much sealed her fate as a cult artist and connoisseurs’ buy – a status she’s never seemed to mind much. Maybe she did see the change in the landscape looming and chose the ironic title as a fond farewell/kiss off to a mainstream she probably never enjoyed being a part of. When I first heard it, I was certain this was the Sound of the Future…which it was actually: Just over a decade later, a singer who was only two years old when Pop Pop came out would sell 26 million copies of a record with a similar sound and feel as Jones’ leading to a renaissance in eccentric jazz singers in the US and especially abroad. In the middle of all that, Pop Pop remains semi-obscure; still in print but mostly forgotten, even by the revolutionaries it [should have] inspired.
NEXT: Halfway to Paradise…