“That’s Their Pet Sounds” : Rickie Lee Jones “Pirates” (1981)

Mission statement:

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 fuckin’ 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…

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Rickie Lee Jones’s BEST ALBUM : 1981’s “Pirates”

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, it 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 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.

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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:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/2E3jRFNrWjqTBJEPrfIDzl

or here:

Weekly New Wonders Playlist !

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It’s raining, raining, raining in NYC and there’s actually a cool breeze happening which, after what feels like weeks of solid unbearable heat, is an absolute blessing. During those aforementioned weeks I found myself endlessly listening to and watching “fake” rain. Or rather, watching the endless supply of “rain videos”, in all their manipulative hypnotic glory on YouTube. There it is, falling on leaves, rocks, forest paths, highways and streams. For hours and hours. Listening to “fake” rain instead of listening to actual music…but thankfully there’s a breeze and now less of a need or impulse to do that and there’s a whole lotta FINE NEW MUSIC to take it’s place (for you, me and everyone). Okay, so enjoy the latest Weekly New Wonders Playlist right here. You can listen on Spotify or Soundcloud below. Dig in…

Spotify here:

Soundcloud here:

Winnetka Bowling League ” On the 5″

Okay bear with me for a minute here, ready ? The title of Jennifer Lopez’s 1999 debut album was “On the 6” which at the time probably, or at least initially, only made sense to New York City residents with its reference to, you know, the 6 train. With that kind of title it’d be cool to say the album intrinsically captured the feeling, and unpredictable energy of NYC but, of course, it did not. It was typical dance pop circa 1999, the title merely an autobiographical wink from J-Lo to her hometown. The end. Whatever. Okay, come now and meet it’s polar opposite in every way, “On the 5”. Yeah, that’s the 5, as in the West Coast’s ubiquitous freeway/highway/endless road. This thing’s blood is literally made of California, and reeks of suntan lotion, gasoline, blue skies, flowers, and the breeze rushing through the windows of a ’92 Subaru . It longingly dreams about the legendary Summer of Love ( 1967) and references both Revolver, and Pet Sounds in the most romantic and wistful way possible. This isn’t hyperbole I swear, all this stuff is in the actual song which is as sweet and swell as can be.

Weekly New Wonders Playlist

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Yeah, it’s manipulative to use this baby owl with his pleading expression to persuade you to listen to the latest Weekly New Wonders Playlist but there’s no level we won’t sink to around here. A lot of POP features within the list, it was just one of those weirdly concentrated weeks, but like Prince said ” Life it ain’t real funky unless it’s got that pop, dig it”. And on that note, just press play below ( you can listen on either Soundcloud or Spotify), stare into these dark and magical orbs, and meet (hopefully) your new favorite song.

Soundcloud:

Spotify (click on link):

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/esperanza19/playlist/7aNhnt0SvZy1pWEfotYvCQ

Weekly New Wonders Playlist

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A lot of good stuff this week. I know I always say this but really, there is a lot of good stuff. You can listen on Soundcloud or Spotify but please note, as usual, lists are ever so slightly different due to certain songs not being available on Soundcloud or vice versa. Check out both so you don’t miss anything okay.

Here’s Soundcloud:

Here’s Spotify:

Tales “So Blue”

“The sun has never loved me”…now that’s a line. Tales is the new moniker of Australian duo The Winter Gypsy, and this, their first single under the new name, is transcendently good. Gorgeous harmonizing, layers and layers of vocals, full of sundown and resignation, sounding like a dreampop Brian Wilson (at his most gorgeously morose), “So Blue” is absolutely stunning, filled to the gills with melody, and is a life affirming tearjerker of the highest order.

Kingsbury “Blurry Now”

“Blurry Now” is fat, plush pop, all swirling carnivalesque synth, desperation and self-realization. It sits somewhere between an emo Ladyhawke and a less austere Goldfrapp tune, which is a pretty cool place to be, and features an especially fine, breathy, and warm vocal. Dizzyingly good it is.

I Know Leopard “Landmine”

A little ELO, a little Scissor Sisters, a little Sgt. Pepper, “Landmine” is old school AM radio-friendly synthetic candy, both utterly earnest and entirely handsome and undoubtedly the # 1 song in a parallel universe.

Alexander Biggs “Ophelia”

With a twanging guitar line that feels like getting gently pulled by the hand to the edge of a cliff, and whispering vocals resting on top of a Joni Mitchell “River” like piano figure, “Ophelia” is exceptionally pretty, uplifting, and ominous at the same time. This track features on the new lp “Whatever Helps You Sleep”, and know what, the title track is pretty exquisite too so attaching that below as well.

 

Weekly New Wonders Playlist

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“I’m not popular enough to be different”

(Quote from Homer Simpson circa 1992)

Anyway, here’s some of the finest new music this side of wherever from the past week. A little heart melting, a little defiant,  a little pop, all good. You can listen on Soundcloud or Spotify below but please note there are 2 songs not on the Spotify list because they are not yet available there.

Here’s Soundcloud:

Here’s Spotify: