Excellent Women

I’m not sure what sent me on a Rickie Lee Jones tear, but I’m glad I succumbed. The monster 3-disc anthology “The Duchess of Coolsville” features almost every track off her first two albums, and a whole lot more, for even though Jones fell lower on the radar post “Pirates,” she’s continued to compose, record, and perform.

A deep dive into the album yields up all sorts of treasures both lyrically and musically, and it’s a thrill to discover so much new (at least to me) material. Jones’ voice is effortless, playful, soaring up to a high-register with the abandon of a child descended from a nightingale. As a poet, she’s every bit as experimental, profound, and brilliant as Patti Smith. But she also has that rare angelic quality of songwriters like Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter, where her melodies are memorable, singable, as if she plucked them out of the air. Her fluidity across musical idioms – the dreamy, smacked-out bliss of “Vessel of Light,” the hangin’-with-the-fellas patter of “Woody and Dutch,” the sly speakeasy wink of “Easy Money,” the girl group balladeering of “It Must Be Love” – she’s simply breathtaking. Go to her website and poke around, and then have an itunes freakout.

When 2 people as sexy as Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg get together, there’s a hell of a lot of potential. It’s realized in their daughter Charlotte, who teams up with Beck for some pretty sexy results. Beck produced the album, wrote many of the songs; it pairs Gainsbourg’s papery voice with his characteristic inventive machine loops and idiosyncratic harmonic choices. There’s a retro 60s feel to some of the tracks, particularly the lovely “In the End,” a haunting lilt that sounds like something Claudine Longet would have crooned over end credits for a Jacques Demy movie. The music, even when it flirts with darkness as it does in “Trick Pony”, is lightweight and airy in the best possible way; it’s like Bjork without the density and Nordic angst.

Going way, way back, I also picked up the Marian Anderson classic, “Spirituals.” I’m not mad about opera singers singing music that’s not opera; they always overenunciate and just sound downright silly. But Anderson delivers these songs of American earth in her steady, liquid contralto with simplicity and beauty, with just a piano as backup. The sorrow in “Crucifixion” and “Motherless Child” is so big you stop feeling, descending into that place of extreme quiet that accompanies the deepest grief. For me, the upbeat numbers like “Gospel Train” and “O What a Beautiful City” don’t work as well, mainly because I want someone to cut loose on a Hammond organ and head for that ecstatic pitch unique to black American churches. But there’s plenty of minor key to go around, and Anderson brings it like no one else.

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