Weird as she wants to be

We’re tucked in the back of some cafe — one of those oh-so-hip places in the part of L.A. where she used to live, before it became seedy and she had to move away.

Now it’s trendy again, but she’s over it. She’s beyond cool.

We’re wearing berets tipped over our eyes. We’re smoking thin cigars, not even bothering to inhale, just letting the smoke slide languidly between our lips. We’re sitting in the back, obscured by shadow, because she’s in one of her private moods, the deeply private persona she slips into, refusing to answer the phone, to answer questions, to discuss her life.

Maybe it’s a throwback to those early days in the mid-to-late ’70s, when she performed with her back to the audience, a femme Jim Morrison who captivated the crowd by her sheer denial of stardom.

And then, of course, she became a star anyway. She had to, hanging out with the likes of L.A. persona Chuck E. Weiss — a singer best known for being the subject of other people’s songs — and Weiss’ buddy, the sandpaper-throated entertainer Tom Waits.

She wasn’t the sort of girl who needed to drop names. She wasn’t made by the men in her life — she made them.

And she made “Coolsville” as well, made us want to live there with her. She rose like a phoenix out of the flames of disco, offering up “Easy Money” and “Last Chance Texaco” in her soaring child’s voice, from her jazz heart.

But she doesn’t want to talk about any of that now. Not to me — not to anyone.

OK, so I’m not really hanging out with Rickie Lee Jones. She isn’t doing interviews while she’s on tour, her publicist informed me. Which is, with Jones, par for the course; her dislike of talking about herself is nothing new. In fact, she wrote in an e-mail interview four years ago with writer Mark Miller that “doing interviews about ME-ME-ME is not what I consider part of my job.”

Perhaps ironically, Jones then continued her rant: “I wish interviews only happened because of a writer’s incredible knowledge and interest in the subject … instead of because there is some product to promote. … I like to talk about things, not me. I am always curious why, when I have not done a record in awhile, no one has any questions.”

Point taken. But does Jones really want to see herself exposed on an episode of VH1’s Where Are They Now?. Probably not. And for her fans, the big news is, of course, the new album, The Evening of My Best Day (V2, 2003). What else?

Which means Jones is now getting far more attention that she’s comfortable with.

Best Day is the singer/songwriter’s first album since 2000’s It’s Like This (Artemis), a collection of covers, and her first batch of original songs since 1997’s Ghostyhead (Artemis), a foray into trip-hop that even die-hard fans dismissed as an attempt at flavor-of-the-month pop.

The new album has little in common with its two predecessors; fans will welcome vintage Jones from the opening notes: She’s there in the brushes-and-snare percussion, the brooding groove, the pared-back, lounge-like essence. And then there’s that voice, about which the Boston Globe astutely noted last November: “At 48, Jones still sounds like a small child with a bad cold and a serious attitude.”

What’s different — and this is big — is that the opening song, “Ugly Man,” is about the president. And Jones makes no apologies for her opinion, chanting at the song’s end: “Time to take the country back.”

In fact, of the album’s 12 selections, three are distinctly political. “Little Mysteries” delves into the 2000 election debacle in Florida, and “Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act)” means just what it says.

“I have never cared about politics,” Jones explained to a Los Angeles Times reporter last October. “I have stayed away from it as far as I could. I felt that my job was to play music, and that if I waved any flags it would drive people away, and I didn’t want to do that. But I definitely changed my mind after George Bush … took the election.”

The same month, she told the New York Post, “I was so apolitical before, but as I watched [President Bush] turn the grief of our nation into a political opportunity, it made me furious.”

For a performer who so rabidly guards her privacy, coming out politically had its definite low points.

“Yes, I received lots of hate mail and threats,” she revealed to Northwest Music Scene late last year. “My family was in tears,” goes a portion of the interview. “But I said, this is what we have to do, because what are we if we stand silently and watch this go down? People are always saying how could the Germans not see what was going on? I say, here is your answer. You are all standing here watching them change everything, corrupt the very fabric of our ethic, and you are saying nothing.”

Fresh hype aside, what’s best about Best Day is what’s always been good about Jones: Her hypnotic minimalism, her lush images, her smoky sensuality.

The media blitz that’s hit the album was sparked by Best Day‘s trio of anti-Bush laments — but the other nine songs are slice-of-life anecdotes.

And one song manages to be both at once: “Little Mysteries,” for all its political underpinnings, presents a great story. It’s a sort of scrapbook of images, collaged against pulsing R&B, panting-dog percussion and Jones’ wah-wah guitar.

“A gypsy boy came up to you,” she sings, “with a newspaper spread over his arms/ to hide his fingers in your pocket …

“And while everybody’s looking up/ in a race too close to call/ the election quietly slips into/ the third door down the hall.”

Rickie Lee Jones plays The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.; 225-5851) on Friday, Jan. 30. Showtime is 8:30 p.m.; tickets cost $30 ($27.50/advance).

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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