It’s no secret that when Rickie Lee Jones, one of the great songwriters of her generation, comes up against walls in her own writing, she turns to the great, luminous tunesmiths before her for inspiration. Jones, an artist of innate honesty and vitality, is too in sync with her muse to force the issue – so instead she makes something new and creative out of other writers’ words and music while the fires slowly return.
Kicks is the latest in a series of curious one-off covers records that have been peppered throughout her diverse catalog like tasty side dishes; 1983’s 10” Girl at Her Volcano EP started the trend by situating Jones as both a jazz stylist and a devotee of classic R&B pop songs, somehow fusing the two into a unique Jones-esque sound; 1991’s Pop Pop took this fusion further, stripping the arrangements back to minimalist simplicity, while 2000’s It’s Like This posited sleek, slim-line 70s rock songs alongside jazz classics. 2012’s The Devil You Know, meanwhile, reveled in its unpolished rawness and unpredictability.
Kicks seem to take its lead from all of these records, but perhaps more than any of them it seems to sit more snugly alongside Jones’ own material. Rarely has a singer-songwriter inhabited other people’s work so completely, but Jones proves herself, again, as one of the most inventive and imaginative interpreters operating today – it’s to her credit that she can, as ever, make 70s radio mainstays make perfect sense alongside jazz jewels from the 40s.
These supposedly disparate threads are tied up in an Americana wash of guitars, vibes, and pedal steel. On the combination of the soft rock of her youth and the jazz of her father’s generation, Jones says: “It is all part of what I heard growing up. The radio played everything! 1960s AM radio was the primordial zone for our musical life today. As a kid, I heard R&B, country, rock, and the most sophisticated singer-songwriters of the day forming their genre. Radio was a college education for a budding musician because these songs are all playing on my internal radio all the time, it’s not a stretch for me to put them together on an LP. Really, I just love to sing.”
And sing the hell she does out of opener “Bad Company” – immediately it stands out as one of Jones’ greatest interpretations, featuring some of her best and most impassioned vocals on record for a while. The grit and gravel of her voice is wrought more incandescent by heavy reverb, and the slowly building arrangement of acoustic and electric guitars, percussion, and vocals that then veers into dreamy, sprawling territory sounds like it could soundtrack a dark scene from a Tarantino film. It’s incredible.
Jones has made New Orleans her home in recent years, that city’s synthesis of sounds and styles informing her last LP, 2015’s The Other Side of Desire. On Kicks, she recruits local musicians, mixers, and studios to produce a record that is both infused with a New Orleans sound but also stays true to Jones’ own musical lineage.
With its reference to New Orleans in Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, Elton John’s “My Father’s Gun” is given a soft-focus, world-weary makeover, with creakier, soulful vocals more akin to Jones’ more recent work. It shows off the album’s palette of vibes, acoustic guitar, and gospel-R&B harmony vocals, which resurfaces on America’s “Lonely People,” chosen as the lead radio single. It strums along with twinkle and grit, injecting the Americana with country elements and a guitar part that recalls vintage 1975-era Fleetwood Mac. The song then morphs into an experimental, textural coda of effects, guitars, strings, vibes, electronics, and pedal steel. It’s quite something.
A pair of low-key, tongue-in-cheek songs follow; “Houston” is a fun country-blues-R&B jaunt, with its finger-snapping and snaky double bass recalling such gems as “Easy Money” from her eponymous 1979 debut LP. “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,” meanwhile (also made famous in the 60s by Dean Martin) recalls both the spare acoustic jazz of Pop Pop and the simple beauty of her father’s own song “The Moon is Made of Gold” (a Jones concert mainstay and finally recorded for 2009’s Balm in Gilead) with its gentle chord progressions and classic Jones harmonies.
Tight three-part harmonies are the order of the day on a version of The Ipana Troubadours’ “Nagasaki,” a funny and exquisite 20s flapper romp later recorded by the Benny Goodman Quartet. A quick pace, horns, and harmonies converge to form something quite unlike anything else in the Rickie Lee Jones canon – as such, to have something truly new in sound and texture for her, four decades into a career is wonderfully fresh and alluring. (In customary self-referential Jones attention to detail, listen out for the “Hershey milkshake” line, which may put one in mind of “Danny’s All-Star Joint” – another connecting through-line between these songs of yore and Jones’ own work.)
“Mack the Knife” and Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” are perhaps two of the most famous songs here, but Jones seems determined to find something different in them to explore. She strips the former back to focus on bass and vibes, while the latter has a romantic, slow, horn-fuelled sound in keeping with Jones’ recent New Orleans ambiance and a soporific splendor key to her more tranquil successes.
Steve Miller Band’s “Quicksilver Girl,” meanwhile, is a beautiful album highlight, with pure, elongated vocal lines that recall the crystalline clarity of Laura Veirs, and a dreamy, romantic arrangement built on electric piano and vibraphone. It’s gorgeous. “Cry,” meanwhile, ends the album on a plaintive, intimate note.
Kicks succeeds in introducing fresh perspectives to songs that are decades old, some of them well-worn, some of them hidden gems. In Rickie Lee Jones’ universe, the age or origin of a song is not important – it’s about what the song says, how it makes you feel, the story it tells. She is a creative stylist and has fashioned something uniquely her own from the songs of other people, which, of course, is no small feat. Alongside co-producer and vibraphonist Mike Dillion, she has crafted an album that feels of a piece: warm, welcoming, and infectious, sitting comfortably in her catalog. Jones’ covers albums have historically predated a fine album of incubated, self-penned material, which is an exciting prospect. In any case, however, Kicks stands on its own two feet (or one, if one is kicking?) as an enjoyable and uniquely Rickie Lee Jones record to savor.