November 3, 1993
Rickie Lee Jones, Traffic From Paradise (Geffen 1993) -- Okay, I'll admit it. I'd written Rickie Lee Jones off as a has-been. Her hit single "Chuck E's In Love" was a catchy tune (in 1979), but I'd pegged her as a folksy/feminist/protest singer who'd long since shot her wad.
Wrong, wrong. Rickie's new album, Traffic From Paradise, is an unexpected treat. Rickie's not out to set the music world on fire -- she just wants to make intelligent jazz-oriented pop music featuring elegant and intricate vocal arrangements. The lady's got a way with words, and the easy production bring out the poignancy and drama in her songs.
Not that Rickie hogs the spotlight on this album. Among the artists making guest appearances are guitarist Leo Kottke, David Hidalgo (from the awesome Los Lobos), Brian Setzer(from the late, unlamented Stray Cats), and newlywed Lyle Lovett (and who gives his shotgun marriage to Julia Roberts a snowball's chance?)
The swirling vocal harmonies that provide the centerpiece for the disc are both engaging and challenging. Rickie reports that the album was "extremely spontaneous. Songs were recorded within days after writing them and in some instances, they were written in the studio and recorded on the same day. I could not wait."
This spontaneity and creative energy is self-evident, as the music sounds very fresh. Surprisingly, the highlight of the album is a remake of David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel." Rickie deftly exposes all the ambiguity and tension in this tune, which the Thin White Duke's early '70s glam-rock persona obscured. If you've been wondering about Rickie Lee Jones, give Traffic From Paradise a test-drive.
Hope, Kindness of Strangers (Interscope 1993) -- Let's be candid. Most "new" music is simply copycat re-hash, as record companies seek to cash in on the success of proven releases (and if you don't believe me, just look at all the Kenny G wanna-bes -- or look at nearly everything from cellar-dwelling RCA).
So when something new comes along, it's a true delight. Kindness of Strangers daringly breaks new ground -- the album is, at once, operatic, alternative and techno. Taking their name from a line in "A Streetcar Named Desire," the Glasgow-based duo of Louise Rutkowski (on vocals) and Craig Armstrong (listed as composer/producer/keyboards) have produced a gentle and refreshingly unique disc.
Club-trained singer Rutkowski has a clear and hugely expressive voice, which is channeled into the emotionally-freeing songs on this album. Having previously performed with neo-new age rockers This Mortal Coil, Rutkowski has an understanding of rock's avant garde -- but also chafes at the limitations of English "dream pop" (and its vague, often incomprehensible vocals).
On the other hand, producer, programmer, and keyboardist Craig Armstrong is cooler and more focused. Armstrong had the benefit of classical music training, including a period of study at London, during which he was named as "young jazz musician of the year," before touring the world with the Band Aid project.
Hope is an engaging, lush, and revealing collection of tunes that defies easy comparison. Pretend Basia showed a little restraint and located some decent material. Or suppose Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart quit sparring long enough to produce a coherent album (which, in all honesty, the Eurythmics were capable of in their early years). Kindness of Strangers is a band with a tremendous future -- listen to Hope, and you'll hear why.
The Williams Brothers, Harmony Hotel (Warner Bros. 1993) -- Harmony Hotel marks the third release for young Andrew and David Williams (the Williams Brothers), who are joined by a full band for this release. The brothers' affinity for acoustic instruments, refined arrangements and understated vocal harmonies is showcased on this album, which follows a two year period of travels and live performances.
The sound on Harmony Hotel is reminiscent of The Rembrandts (whose self-titled debut release was dynamite), although it lacks any stand-out singles. Instead, the Williams Brothers present a steady (if somewhat predictable) batch of slower acoustic numbers, all featuring their two-part vocal harmonies.
The album tends towards a gentler, coffee-house sound, with smooth production work courtesy of associate producer/guitarist Marvin Etzioni (formerly of Lone Justice). Harmony Hotel is a fine easy-listening album, and fills an otherwise overlooked niche, as acoustic folk music has all but faded from sight.
-- Randy Krbechek
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