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.
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