Before acquiring Pirates a couple of years ago, all I knew of Rickie Lee Jones was that she was the voice of The Orb’s magnificent Little Fluffy Clouds. I guess it must be pretty galling to be an esteemed singer-songwriter of yore and yet have swathes of an entire generation of music lovers whose only connection is a sample of a snatch of conversation of a promotional CD for one of your albums, even if that sample becomes one of the most recognisible, iconic samples of all time! Of course, I also knew the song Chuck E’s In Love, but never knew who sung it until I bought Pirates and started to do the obligatory on-line research.
So I really had no idea what to expect when I first played Pirates. And I guess that by the time that first play had ended, I still wasn’t sure what to make of the record; its mellifluous, jazzy soundscapes and Springsteenesque storytelling being at odds with what I would normally look for in a purchase.
But, with a little help from my daughter (who immediately clicked with the album, unencumbered as she is with the weight of musical prejudice) it, quite slowly admittedly, dawned on me that Pirates is a keeper, one of those records that reveals more with each listen, where the things that put you off in the first place become distant memories as the listening experience becomes more and more immersive and encompassing. I have loads of records that have pulled this trick in my collection (Forever Changes, Clear Spot, Pet Sounds, every American Music Club album ever, The Chills’ Brave Words) and have written about it in the blog many times over, yet it still never ceases to amaze me – how the songs obviously don’t alter at all, yet my relationship with them transforms them from anathema to essential with just familiarity, a little bit of close listening and an open mind.
At record club, however, I was caught somewhere in between; the fact that there were two newbies listening for the first time brought back memories of my own experiences of first fetting to know the album. So, whilst the unimpeachable magnificence of opener We Belong Together remained untarnished, some of the other, more challenging numbers reverted, for the night at least, back to being…challenging, Skeletons vaguely musical theatre like qualities, for example, becoming unavoidable when listening in the presence of my esteemed and experienced fellow clubbers. Funny thing is, on my own or in the company of my family (all of whom are fans) I don’t really hear it like that at all!
I played Pirates again this evening for the first time since record club and it all sounded fabulous again. It’s of its time, of course, and very much in the Springsteen/Waits (early years) mould of third person storytelling. Musically it harks back to some of Joni Mitchell’s more complex, jazz inflected mid 70s fare and forward to, say, Jane Siberry’s The Walking – maintaining that balance between the complex and the accessible; hooks abound but are rarely repeated, songs writhe around never really falling into a recognisible verse/chorus/verse structure whilst never veering too far away from that either. Many of the songs are exercises in delayed or unfulfilled release, We Belong Together being a case in point as it threatens on a number of occasions to explode into a Born To Run style rocker, but Jones reigns it in almost immediately lest it should become too predictable.
I have no idea where Pirates sits within the pantheon, I still feel that it is a bit of an outlier in my collection and I know that my 25 year old self would have mocked me for even entertaining the idea of putting it on the record player. But for a 48 year old man (or a 15 year old daughter), Pirates works just fine and has brought many hours of unexpected aural pleasure over the past couple of years.
Rob listened: Well, it’s good to know that by the sheer gravitational force of our dense stupidity, Record Club attendees are able to warp the very sounds of a record around us, until it no longer seems the same. Sorry Tom. Glad it straightened back out.
I liked ‘Pirates’. Since Tom brought ‘Hejira’ to us a couple of years ago, I’ve spent lots of time going back to listen to Joni Mitchell, and, although I don’t think we talked all that much about her on the night, I can hear the connection now. It’s somewhere in a music that respects boundaries and form just enough to know when it’s wilfully over-running them.
And yes, there is Springsteen in the sometimes tumbling sing-speak story-telling, and perhaps a dash of Waits in the character portraits of lost nighthawks. But ultimately Rickie Lee Jones was a contemporary of these artists, not necessarily an acolyte, and so the credit for this intriguing and lovely record belongs to her.