Bonded by the Chuck E. connection
“Miracle of Five” (Zedtone)
* * * 1/2
Rickie Lee Jones
“The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard” (New West)
* * * *
WHEN you look at pop music only through the prism of popularity charts, it can seem like a rootless, random place, where practitioners rise and fall in disconnected orbits and with no bonds to the past.
But that’s just one aspect of popular music, and although there’s nothing wrong with the trendiness of the Top 40 -- that kind of impermanence helps keep mainstream pop fresh and fun -- music has also come to offer something more stable and connected to those who want it.
Those are qualities that fans have learned to seek out in the various scenes on the pop landscape, whether geographical, ideological or stylistic. In these communities, artists can put down roots and seed creativity in a protected ecosystem of shared ideals or mutual hangouts, and a musical spirit can survive and evolve far beyond pop radio’s transitory lifespan. For generations even.
For a living, breathing example of this connection, you can’t do better than the recently released albums by Rickie Lee Jones and Eleni Mandell. Here is the mother of Los Angeles bohemian female singer-songwriter pop and her most prominent heir, and although you might not match them as close kin based purely on the sound of these collections, they are bound by musical genes and personal history.
Jones, of course, was the beret-wearing, bottle-wielding, post-beatnik Bonnie to Tom Waits’ Clyde in the city’s barfly underbelly of the 1970s. When she drew on that milieu for her sweetly saucy song “Chuck E.'s in Love” she became a star, on the scene and beyond.
Chuck E. was the redoubtable Chuck E. Weiss, their crony and a colorful musician in his own right, and he was a mentor not only to Jones but also, decades after, to Mandell. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s and ‘80s and, inspired by L.A.'s great punk band X, became a musician herself.
She was a Waits admirer as well and embodied a neo-boho sensibility. Her reputation was established with her first album, the Jon Brion-assisted “Wishbone” in 1999. Jones was bottoming out at about that time, her commercial fortunes and critical regard tarnished particularly by her 1997 experimental electronic album “Ghostyhead.”
But as their paths converge in 2007, they’re both riding a high. Mandell’s career has progressed steadily, and “Miracle of Five” is the best of her six albums. Jones regained her artistic focus on the politically inspired 2003 album “Evening of My Best Day,” and the moving, jubilantly eccentric “The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard” might be the best of her career.
The records contrast sharply. Mandell’s is reflective, calmly stated, cleanly recorded, a jewel-like showcase of her qualities as a writer and singer. Jones’ is ambitious and sprawling, a mud-caked journey to transcendence.
“Miracle of Five” is Mandell’s most intimate work, and it summarizes all of her strengths: her ability to move among genres without sounding facile and among musical eras without seeming nostalgic, her emotional directness, her subtly shaded singing.
She’s not the broad, brassy character that the young Jones could be, and she suggests the big world in economical, understated ways. The folkish “Girls” is light, elegant and perfect, a musical pastry with a wistful aftertaste. She’s a deep-voiced femme fatale in the smoky noir of “Beautiful,” and she brings a bit of her country twang to the languorous title song.
In “The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard,” Jones has crafted a musical extension of her friend Lee Cantelon’s book “Words,” which Jones describes in her booklet note as “a modern rendering of the words of Christ.”
That doesn’t really prepare you for the effect of the album, in which Jones and her collaborators mount a range of potent musical frameworks, from the ragged, Velvet Underground-like anthem that starts it off to the free-flowing groove that ends it on a note of “Astral Weeks’” trembling emotion.
Jones (who plays the Henry Fonda Theatre on March 1) has a great time placing the New Testament themes into her vernacular, both humorously (picture Jesus driving around heaven in Elvis’ Cadillac) and with solemn purpose.
If Mandell is watching, she figures to be inspired by Jones’ breakthrough into this zone of creative freedom. And she should assume that it runs in the family.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).