No matter who we are in this absurd, brief, and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we freakin’ delivered the goods.
Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds” our semi-regular feature where we endeavor to spotlight, and celebrate a heretofore maybe uncool, often unjustifiably underrated, sometimes polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be, or “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.
“That’s Their Pet Sounds” is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.
And with that here’s an artist whom while she’s gotten her justified share of critical acclaim is still regarded as a “one hit wonder” in a lot of circles…which is pretty bullshit…
Rickie Lee Jones’s BEST ALBUM : Pirates (1981)
Background: Early in her career Rickie Lee Jones used to get compared to Joni Mitchell (a legend) a lot. Like a lot. People would often site her appearance, her singular instantly recognizable voice, her esoteric songwriting and her jazz influences as “Joni-esque” which while in some respects wasn’t a reach, was an undeniably lazy and easy comparison to make. After 16 studio albums (as of this writing) it’s clear from even the most cursory listen, Rickie was a lot weirder, more self-deprecating, unhinged and unpredictable vocally, plus unlike Joni, she was/is an unabashed resident of the wrong side of the tracks ( her earlier songs often featured losers in search of sure things, drugs and Rickie’s relationships with both ). By the way, choosing Pirates as her peak performance isn’t necessarily a cut and dried decision as Rickie’s first 3 studio albums are all pretty deep in the quality department ( ed.note : not counting Girl at Her Volcano, her standards cover album that came between albums 2 and 3 which while off-kilter and cool is kind of an outlier in the discography)…but Pirates gets the edge as it completely encapsulates everything she is about, and, hyperbole alert (!) is perfectly succinct and beautiful in every way.
Why it’s her Pet Sounds: It features 3 of the absolute greatest songs of her 40 year career, in a row, to start the freakin’ album. The LP as a whole sounds like a stream of consciousness story, and it’s stars are Rickie’s patently deluded boho romantic lost souls, and their plans that never work out or end badly yet everyone keeps on dreaming, and trying to “be alive” so to speak. Pirates is a soulful popped out spin on Springsteen’s very particular brand of misguided mortals like he’d been offering at around the same time (late 70’s, early 80’s), the kind of wishful thinkers depicted in his “Backstreets”, “Meeting Across the River”,and “Racing in the Streets”…but Rickie’s souls are surrounded not with meat, potatoes, glockenspiel and sax, they’re swathed in swirling orchestration, piano flourishes and unpredictable hooks. Pirates is full of arcs and crescendos, like some hallucinatory broadway musical. Add to that her own warm, sinewy and otherworldly voice. To put it simply, it can get dark inside these songs but they are full of color.
The Songs: The 2 lead tracks are Rickie at her finest: “We Belong Together” is a breathless and desperate movie scene that builds and builds with a tripping chorus and some kick ass power drums while “Living It Up” is all resignation, delusion, sex, and desperation. These 2 songs feel inextricably locked together, like non-identical twins born a mere minute apart and honestly I can’t even listen to one without playing the other immediately after.
“Skeletons” is ridiculously prescient and gripping ( it’s a police story, will leave it at that, check it out ) with a delicate and oddly optimistic melody belying the innate sadness at it’s core. And sweet pop is alive in both the title track,“Pirates…” and “A Lucky Guy” ( about Rickie’s former paramour Tom Waits himself). Finally the ambitious, widescreen, fat jazz of “Traces of the Western Slopes” features some of Rickie’s most compelling vocal keening, and “The Returns” sets the wistful credits rolling.
Anything sub-standard ? Out of the 8 featured tracks there’s really only 1 that could be considered straight up filler, the overly perky “Woody and Dutch”, which yeah, I always skip.
Here’s Rickie after winning the cursed “Best New Artist” Grammy in 1980, deservedly beating the likes of Dire Straits, The Blues Brothers, The Knack and Robin Williams which is easily the nerdiest white guy age 13-30 in 1980 wet dream list ever. Go girl …
In Conclusion: As meandering ( in a good way) and epic ( 4 of the 8 tracks are over 5 minutes) as Pirates contents are, make no mistake, this is a pop album and very easy to latch onto i.e. it’s melodic to the core. It’s been 37 years since the initial release of Pirates and Rickie is still touring like a maniac…and she still justifiably features a lot of the Pirates tracks in her setlists. Highly recommend the multitude of acoustic and live versions of all the aforementioned tracks which can be easily found on YouTube, on Rickie’s website, plus on her official live album from 1995 Naked Songs because in a lot of cases they are transcendently good, as in a lot of them rival the original studio versions. That’s the thing about Rickie, even stripped down the songs are as elastic, melodic and wondrous as the fully clothed versions. And go see her, for real, she’s really unpredictable and she’ll take you there…but visit Pirates now, right now, headphones, train, car, it’s her Pet Sounds.
Hear it here: