Off the Beaten Path looks at covers of songs from a less popular era in an artist’s career.
In the early days of her now 40-plus year career, people compared Rickie Lee Jones to Joni Mitchell a lot. People would often characterize her appearance, her emotive voice, her esoteric songwriting, and her jazz influences as being “Joni-esque.” While in some respects it wasn’t a reach, it was an undeniably lazy and easy comparison to make. Even the most cursory listen of Rickie’s work, especially the first three albums, will confirm that she was never a lady of the canyon. No, she was coming from a wilder, more eccentric and unpredictable place.
Rickie was a proud and unabashed resident of the wrong side of the tracks. Her songs were inhabited by losers and deluded romantic souls endlessly in search of sure things and drugs (not necessarily in that order) as well as her relationships to both. They were populated by an endless stream of enigmatic wanderers whose plans and schemes never seemed to work out, but who still kept on trying, kept on dreaming. If anything, Rickie’s cast of characters presented a darker, street-ier spin on Bruce Springsteen’s own gang of misguided mortals, the kind of wishful thinkers he depicted in his “Backstreets,” “Meeting Across the River,” and “Racing in the Streets.”
There are basically two ways to cover a Rickie Lee Jones song. The first and most common option is to go slick and sophisticated, paying homage to their perfect melodic construction, jazzy bones and detailed lyrical content. The second is to forget the rules and let your freak flag fly. Fact is, Rickie covers sound just as great off the leash as they do on the regulation playing field. This latter approach often feels truer to the original songs’ magical inborn spirit, which is why some of the best Rickie covers are the ones that veer the farthest outside the lines, that shape-shift to a particular performer’s emotions and style.
With that, we now offer you a bit of both, the lush and the loose; a tale of two Rickies, if you will. Character-driven last calls. Vivid childhood remembrances. Poignant prayers for love. And every one of them is straight-up Coolsville.
Daryl Braithwaite – The Horses (Rickie Lee Jones cover)
“The Horses” was a Rickie co-write with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and appeared on her 1989 album Flying Cowboys. Its sweet jauntiness and comforting message mark it as one of the most optimistic and embraceable tracks Rickie has ever recorded. Know what else? It is also one of THE absolute most beloved songs in the history of Australian pop music, a genuine dyed in the wool “unofficial” National Anthem. Daryl Braithwaite’s 1991 cover of the song was an Australian #1, going 6x platinum and lodging itself in the pop chart for 23 whole weeks.
But statistics cannot possibly convey just how deeply entrenched the song is in hearts of those down under. Even if you listen to the studio version above and view its oh-so-’90s video, featuring a model lip-synching actual duet partner Margaret Urlich’s vocals, you will still not quite be able to comprehend just how ubiquitous and mega Daryl’s version of “The Horses” is. No, the best way to understand its power is to watch Daryl performing the song in a live setting, as his fellow countrywomen and men duet with him en masse. Please take a look at this and this.That folks, is true love.
And, added bonus, please check out Adrian Eagle’s fabulous live version from 2019 right here, because just wow.
Erik Ostrom – The Evening Of My Best Day (Rickie Lee Jones cover)
Back in April of 2009, Rickie embarked on a multi-night residency at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC. Each show was different and, it goes without saying, ridiculously wonderful. One of the true highlights came early, on night 1 in fact, with a solo piano performance of latter-day classic “The Evening Of My Best Day.” In Rickie’s introduction of the song she said she’d written it with her mother in mind and that it actually helped the two of them make peace before her Mom’s passing. While it was already a mist-inducing, dog-eared family album of a song, Erik Ostrum has taken it a step further, turning “Evening” into a full-blown I just need a minute tearjerker. With its barely-there instrumentation and fragile, unspeakably vulnerable vocal, it’s an absolute stunner.
Melissa Etheridge – Chuck E’s In Love (Rickie Lee Jones cover)
“Chuck E’s In Love” was Rickie’s highest charting pop single ( going to #4 in 1979) and is unsurprisingly the most streamed song in her entire catalogue…which means it’s a pretty popular cover choice. There are some nice versions out there, but there is something about pre-fame Melissa Etheridge’s live performance from 1985 that stands out from the rest. Most “Chuck E” covers opt for the sweet and cute route, but not Melissa. She takes the raucous road, adding some extra stuttering “when he talks” and belts it out with genuine unbridled joy. She rasps and rolls and, as you might expect, just totally rocks.
Sue Ann Carwell – Company (Rickie Lee Jones cover)
While legendary jazz diva Dianne Reeves’s 1989 version of “Company” is the most high profile cover of the epic heartbreaker, there’s something about this lesser-known version by Sue Ann Carwell that really hits the heart. Sue Ann was Prince’s very first musical protégé, first meeting him in 1979 when both were a part of the burgeoning Minneapolis music scene. Prince was impressed enough with Sue Ann’s voice and persona that he wanted to create a project for her. In what was to become the classic Prince protege career blueprint, he wanted to her to perform under a more pop-ified moniker, “Susie Stone,” while he custom wrote songs for her to perform. Sue Ann balked at the lack of authenticity and autonomy of this idea, so Prince’s plan ultimately fizzled out. But she did end up getting a deal with his label Warner Brothers. Sue Ann recorded her soulful cover of “Company” when she was in her late teens, and it appeared on her 1981 debut album Sue Ann. Her vocal on the track is spectacularly emotional and utterly believable. Bolstered by some sweet guitar and electric keys, this “Company” is an old school, superfine hidden treasure.
Breanne Düren – On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 (Rickie Lee Jones cover)
“On Saturday Afternoons In 1963” has not only been a popular cover choice, but its evocative, poetic description of childhood has also seen it employed to soundtrack scenes in more than a few TV shows and films (House being one of the former, Little Darlings the latter). Breanne Düren is best known for her work with indie electronic popsters Owl City, though we should note that she also has several fine solo releases under her belt. Her cover of “On Saturday…” is the height of simplicity, featuring just piano and vocal, and thus a straight-up sonic 180 from her usual work. The skeletal arrangement places Düren’s voice directly in the spotlight, and she makes the most of it with an unerringly lovely, empathetic hug of a performance.
Brich & Killion – Young Blood (Rickie Lee Jones cover)
There is something undeniably fun about seeing the guys weighing in with their Rickie covers. Omaha music scene veterans Jerome Brich & Kevin Killion transform the bubbling, funk-ified “Young Blood” into a folk-ified, country-fried back porch jam. Disregard the colorless, flavorless, beige-curtained venue setting; the duo’s masterful picking provides all the beauteous decoration anyone could ever need.
Solveig Slettahjell – After Hours (Rickie Lee Jones cover)
Even without visuals, last call hymn “After Hours (Twelve Bars Past Midnight)” has a cinematic quality, its old timey piano and Rickie’s yearning vocal perfectly evoking a lost and lonely closing scene in the wee small hours. For her version, Norwegian singer Solveig Slettahjell strips away the theatrical element and holds the song oh so close, serving up a vocal of such intimacy and whispery nearness that, should you choose to listen on headphones, it might well give you the shivers.
Kacy Crowley – Last Chance Texaco (Rickie Lee Jones cover)
Okay, RLJ fans, here’s a question for you: Which Rickie song do you feel is her career-defining track, the one that epitomizes everything she is about, the tune that encapsulates all a space alien unfamiliar with her would need to know upon landing on earth to inspire them to explore the catalogue? With the seemingly infinite number of brilliant things to choose from, it’s a hard question to answer, right?
Well, while there may not be a sole definitive track, there is no question that “The Last Chance Texaco” would be amongst the top 5. Not only does the song provide the title of Rickie’s 2021 memoir, but there’s a band in Denver who’ve adopted it as their freakin’ name. Singer-songwriter Kacy Crowley’s 2008 cover is roughhewn, deep and dusty, positively Lucinda-esque, the latter feeling best embodied by the way she chews up and spits out song’s signature verse (“there was this block-busted blonde!”). If you are a fan, there’s a good chance you too have attempted “emote” whilst singing along to that part of the song…but believe me when I tell you, Kacy does it way, way better than any of us.
Jeanette Lindström and Steve Dobrogosz – Deep Space (Rickie Lee Jones cover)
A collaborative effort between Swedish vocalist Jeanette Lindström and American pianist Steve Dobrogosz (whose incredible work with Radka Toneff we wrote about here), this version of the gorgeous deep cut from Rickie’s 1984 album The Magazine manages to be both wintry and warm. Lindström’s honeyed voice and Dobrogosz’s icy and assertive piano seem like distant voices over a wire; the recording has feeling of two solo performances that were delicately layered onto one another. It’s a chilly and wistful beauty.