by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Rickie Lee Jones hasn’t always floated under the radar. While its two hit singles (the Top Ten smash “Chuck E.’s in Love” and the Top 40 follow-up “Young Blood”) aren’t heard on the radio these days nearly as often as they used to be, Jones’ 1979 self-titled debut was one of the most critically acclaimed debut albums of the late ‘70s, and her promotional appearance for the album on SNL (her first of three visits to the show) remains one of the more iconic musical moments from the show’s first decade. Yet, while she has never stopped attracting the notice of music critics who lauded her as the next Joni Mitchell (a comparison that’s never fully made sense, since the two really don’t have much in common stylistically, and Jones’ music, if it can really be compared to anyone, really owes far more to, say, Laura Nyro than it does to Joni), Jones would never again land another Top 40 single and her music remains little-known amongst younger music fans with a deep appreciation for pop music of decades past.
In some respects, this might not be surprising, since Jones has never taken the obvious route. Her next two records were wildly unpredictable: the artistically ambitious Pirates flirted with longer songs, more complex song structures, and a more pronounced jazz and be-bop influence (even the title cut, which at first sounds like a sequel of sorts to “Chuck E.’s in Love,” plays with the listener’s expectations and quickly breaks into an extended slow passage, and the lead-off single “A Lucky Guy,” a jazzy piano ballad reminiscent of the kind Norah Jones would launch her career on decades later, is anything but an obvious single to market to pop radio in 1981), and the 10” covers EP Girl at Her Volcano. After releasing the critically-derided but somewhat more radio-friendly The Magazine in 1984, Jones proceeded to take a long hiatus from music to start a family before finally emerging with a vengeance five years later in 1989 with Flying Cowboys, her first outing on Geffen Records (ironically, also Mitchell’s label at the time).
In many ways, Flying Cowboys is still as uncompromising as anything else in Jones’ catalog, and the album is especially intriguing, when you consider that it came out in 1989, because it sounds like very little else on the radio at the time. Even her choice of producer is an unexpected one on the surface: Steely Dan co-founder/bassist Walter Becker. The combination does make sense, though: like Jones, Steely Dan has always had a gift for welding its musical and lyrical idiosyncratic tendencies with pop sensibilities, creating a style distinctly their own. And if there’s any pop single released during Jones’ hiatus that can be said to share any of the same lyrical or musical stylings as Flying Cowboys, it’s the equally-underrated 1987 hit “Arizona Sky” by the British group China Crisis—a band which not only was influenced by Steely Dan but had employed Becker as its producer for its third album and even credited him as a full-blown band member on that disc. Becker makes a great foil for Jones, reining in her most experimental tendencies while still encouraging her idiosyncracies and allowing her personality to shine through on disc in a way that it hadn’t quite been able to since Pirates, resulting in an album that strikes the perfect balance between the artistic and the commercial while boasting what is easily the catchiest set of songs Jones had penned since her debut.
Although Flying Cowboys isn’t a concept album per se, few albums from the ‘80s have a musical landscape that goes as perfectly with their respective album titles and cover artwork as this disc does. The album is most easily fully appreciated while listening at home with the album cover in your hands. The music helps brings the cover to life, and the cover enhances the music, which is great throughout.
The album’s first single and college-radio hit, “Satellites”—jaunty and graceful at the same time, and note-perfect throughout—is, with the sole possible exception of “Chuck E.’s in Love,” the best single in Jones’ entire catalog and the best example of a Jones song where the verses are every bit as catchy as the choruses. “Just My Baby,” with its prominent harmonica, is a charmingly easygoing, lazy, Sunday-afternoon stroll of a song, and the gently pulsing “Rodeo Girl” is just as pleasing. “Ghetto of My Mind” is a foray into reggae territory that, in theory, shouldn’t work but ends up being one of the album’s highlights, owing largely thanks to the obvious joy and enthusiasm of the players taking part. The stark, chillingly atmospheric “Ghost Train” is less commercial but closes the album’s first side in spectacular fashion.
The album’s title track and centerpiece, built around one of the more distinctive guitar riffs to be found on any adult-pop albums from the ‘80s, is a real jaw-dropper. The closing two couplets in particular may stand as not only Jones’ greatest moment as a lyricist but as one of the most underrated verses in all of pop music. Elsewhere, Jones incongruously covers ‘60s British-Invasion hit makers Gerry & the Pacemakers’ ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” cleverly recasting the song in a more tropical setting akin to vintage Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 and making it such an ideal soundtrack for lazily floating around a pool that a beach resort would be smart to adopt it for use in a commercial. While the re-arrangement is thoroughly left-field, it works surprisingly well and ends up making the song an even more relaxing and memorable listen than the original.
And, while Jones’ material can sometimes be notoriously slow (indeed, she famously clashed with the producers of “SNL” in 1979 over the right to play “Coolsville” during the broadcast), her ballads here are not only as hypnotic and beautiful as ever but also boast unforgettable melodies, “Away from the Sky” in particular (it may, in fact, be the most underrated ballad in her entire body of work.)
If there’s any major flaw in the album, it’s that it’s in dire need of a remaster. The only American release of the album on compact disc to date is the original 1989 pressing, which suffers from unusually low volume, even for a CD from that era. With any luck, this great album eventually gets reissued on CD with improved sound. Still, if you’re unfamiliar with Jones and are interested in exploring her catalog, this album, with the sole possible exception of her debut, might showcase her unique style and personality and her knack for writing a great pop song, better than anything else in her catalog and comes highly recommended.