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Album review: Rickie Lee Jones' 'Balm in Gilead'

November 2, 2009 | 10:34 pm

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This is a big year for Rickie Lee Jones: It's the 30th anniversary of the release of her self-titled debut album, which won her critical acclaim and the title of the Next Big Thing singer-songwriter. It's also the year that her daughter, Charlotte Rose, turns 21, a milestone she celebrates in her new album's opening track, "Wild Girl." It's a love letter to her offspring that also plays out like a reflection on her own youth.

These anniversaries feed the sense that Jones is assessing her place in life as she's on the cusp of turning 55. The 10 songs course through the highs and lows with equanimity, from the pride and hope in Charlotte she expresses to the kindheartedness she displays for those acquaintances who've moved on ("Old Enough," "Bonfires").

Spirituality plays a big role here, in the shimmering textures of "His Jeweled Floor," her yearning for understanding in "The Gospel of Carlos, Norman and Smith" and the ethereal poetry of "Eucalyptus Trail." Musically she also seems to be surveying the various styles she's explored over the years, leaning toward soul and gospel but returning to the purebred folk tradition in "Bonfires" with its finger-picked acoustic guitar backing.

Jones arrives at acceptance, if not always approval, of the complexities of life as an adult. ("Well it's hard to be older and poor / I don't dig it that much anymore" she sings in "Wild Girl"). But by the closing track, "Bayless St.," a reverie clothed in old-timey dobro, mandolin and slide guitar, she has found the peace in acceptance -- the spiritual balm for which the biblical land of Gilead was famous.

-- Randy Lewis

Rickie Lee Jones
Balm in Gilead
Fantasy Records
Three and a half stars (Out of four)

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