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Woody Guthrie. Bob Dylan. Rickie Lee Jones?

The Longtime Symbol of Boho L.A. Has a Vibrant New Album That Reveals an Unlikely Activist Persona. But Politics and Pop Music Don't Always Mix--Ask Sinead O'Connor or the Dixie Chicks.

October 05, 2003|Oscar Garza | Oscar Garza is deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

If someone asked you to listen to a song called "Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act NOW)," you'd probably cringe at the possibility--indeed, the likelihood--of a preachy message being delivered over the relentless strumming of an acoustic guitar and the incessant banging of a tambourine. Has the Kingston Trio been revived? Maybe it's an outtake from "A Mighty Wind," Christopher Guest's film parody about a reunion of time-warped '60s folkies. You read the lyrics for a clue:

Now they want us to just get in line

behind a president,

when you know they spent millions of dollars

condemning and accusing

the last one from the other side.

Tell somebody, tell somebody,

tell somebody

what's happening in the USA.

I want to know how far you will go

to protect our right of free speech?

Because it only took a moment

before it faded out of reach.

So you brace yourself to withstand the song and . . . hey, what's this? A thumping bass line, a funky guitar riff--and then a familiar voice chimes in. Could it be? No way . . . yes! It's that unmistakable drawl, hailing from the far side of coolsville--Rickie Lee Jones!? Carefree jazzbo, green-eyed soulstress, incurable romantic, bard of the bittersweet lullaby, the terminal hipster whose rendering of "I Won't Grow Up" sounded as if she meant it--Rickie Lee Jones has become a protest singer.

Her new album, "The Evening of My Best Day," comes out Tuesday, and many critics likely will describe it as "vintage Rickie Lee." Her signature sound is all there--the finger-snappin' rhythms, the aching ballads, the poetic lyrics. It's clearly her strongest new work in a decade. But in making this record, Jones had an awakening. It was no longer enough just to create, or to entertain, or, as she puts it, to "heal."

Jones' evolution is revealed on the album's first cut--a brooding jazz groove. You think she's about to channel Betty Carter with a throaty lament about a lost love. But the song is titled "Ugly Man," and it's about the President of the United States of America:

He's an ugly man

he always was an ugly man.

He grew up to be just like his father

an ugly man.

And he'll tell you lies.

He'll look at you and tell you lies.

He grew up to be just like his father

ugly inside.

"I have never cared about politics," says Jones, sitting on the back patio of her home in West Los Angeles. "I have stayed away from it as far as I could. I felt my job was to play music, 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 the year that George Bush got elec- . . ."--she pauses to choose other words--". . . took the election."

Unlikely as it may seem, Jones has found and unleashed her inner radical. Her new stance doesn't dominate the album--only three of the 12 songs have overt political references. But those three numbers will define this record, which arrives just as the nation's political tension is rising over the war on terrorism and the 2004 presidential campaign looms. In "Little Mysteries," Jones recounts what led to this juncture: the pivotal 2000 presidential election. Again, she manages to marry pointed lyrics with seductive sound, this time slithery R&B:

A trail of lies leads us to Orlando

but we are days too late

And when the boys came over from Texas

they said, We'll take everything we can take.

And while everybody's looking up

in a race too close to call

the election quietly slips into

the third door down the hall.

So here we go again--another artist has decided to enter the political fray. There is a long tradition of social commentary in pop music, but that road is also littered with good intentions, bad decisions and bleeding naivete. At the very least, Jones may be accused of preaching to the converted.

"Well, then, let's get them galvanized," she says. "I'd be happy to know that there's any converted out there. 'Hello . . . anybody still there?' I'm not trying to provoke, I'm just trying to say, 'Hey, where's our community? Where's our ethical nature? You're on the right, we're on the left, but we both know that being a bully and suppressing free speech is wrong, don't we? There must be some places that we as Americans agree . . . don't let this moment in time sweep that away.' "

Jones' album undoubtedly will resonate with her fans, and not only because they will recognize the comforting sound of her music. Her work has matured, and Jones acknowledges that she has too. She's in a better place musically and personally, having endured a journey familiar to the fortysomething crowd that comprises her core audience. She's landed securely, empowered by her growth and rejuvenated by her new embrace of L.A.--the city where she found fame and all of its consequences, both good and bad.

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