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Vinyl Tap: Rickie Lee Jones – Girl At Her Volcano

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I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #38:

Nobody displays the live-in-concert tortured artist effect better than Rickie Lee Jones. Or maybe I just caught her on a bad night years ago — about the time of the 1983 release of the Girl At Her Volcano EP — when Jones exhibited a healthy dose of prima donna petulance. First she berated the audience for being too quiet, then about 15 minutes later, after we drudged up a modicum of polite response apropos to the show that must go yawn, she rebuked us for our perceived boisterousness. I don’t think we ever did hit upon a happy medium that suited the Queen of Coolsville throughout the rest of the wildly inconsistent show. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t head for the exit…

The two live-performance tracks erupting from Girl At Her Volcano's seven cover songs and outtakes — both great standards from a lost era of songwriting craftsmanship –could’ve come from that erratic show. Where the Jones-style slurring in Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” can certainly convey the sense of one who “relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life / To get the feel of life / From jazz and cocktails,” her halting vocal affectations won’t make you soon forget Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn’s impeccable versions. And in Rodgers and Hart’s sublime “My Funny Valentine,“ she doesn’t exactly “smile with her heart” with her too-precious and overly caressing yet wayward take.

Jones, however, continuing to show a first-rate ability in song selection, is more successful on some more up-to-date cuts. The Drifters’ upbeat “Under The Boardwalk” isn’t a radical departure, but it doesn’t need to be — backing vocals and harmonies enhance the evocative joyousness of a song that could’ve been lifted from Jones’ accessibly enjoyable and self-titled debut album from 1979.

Not that she needs those background voices. Jones’ dynamic emotiveness in her old friend Tom Waits’ heartrending “Rainbow Sleeves” comes through loud and clear, not only in every soaring note but in each whispery catch of her throat, in perfect complement to the melodicism of the music and the romanticism of the lyrics. You‘ll forgive her, then, if she gets a little weepy as she sings:

    You used to dream yourself away each night
    To places that you'd never been
    On wings made of wishes
    That you whispered to yourself
    Back when every night the moon and you
    Would sweep away to places
    That you knew
    Where you would never get the blues…

More impressionistic and shimmering — and the highlight of Girl — is Jones’ interpretation of Left Banke’s gorgeous mid-’60s "Baroque'n'Roll" classic, “Walk Away Renee.” With its moodiness and complex rhythms, it wouldn't have been out of place on 1981’s more challenging but rewarding Pirates, and the subdued, almost defeated vulnerability is further achieved as Jones takes a little lyrical liberty. Transferring a mid-song verse to the end, while transposing a couple words and deleting one, “Walk Away Rene’s” concluding verse becomes a sigh of acquiescence, an almost inaudible one, as if Jones is shrinking, retreating from the world:

    From deep inside the tears
    I'm forced to hide
    From deep inside the tears
    I’m forced to cry.

What is the missing word? “Pain.” Which, after the emotional toll of the preceding four minutes, would pretty much be a redundant utterance here.

As if to punctuate and reiterate this point — or really, the pointlessness — the next song, a pretty and poignant Rickie Lee Jones-composed “Hey, Bub,” sustains the tears with a little rumination upon memories faded to “the darkness,” a love lost to bleakness: “I don't know, it happened so fast / And sometimes all I see is lonely / Oh lonely…”

Chuck E's no longer "in love with the little girl who's singing this song." If you yourself are not feeling some heart tugs by now, you’ve got ice water in your veins. And that’s not what’s coursing through this volcano, or the girl presiding… and pondering.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • Mark Saleski

    nice one gordon. i had this on cassette for many years. totally love that version of “Under The Boardwalk”.

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