Though Rickie Lee Jones was always passionately vocal about the strong regard with which she held Laura Nyro's music, she was more commonly compared to the 'other' female singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell, in the contemporary music press. This comparison seems very shallow today. Pirates is far more identifiably influenced by Nyro's trilogy of albums in the late 60s than anything Mitchell released. This album stands head and shoulders above the rest as the high watermark of Jones's oeuvre.
The optimistic longing in the opening track, 'We Belong Together' is a peaceful overture to the soulful and heartbreaking 'Living it Up' (the highlight of the strong tracklist). Though it's the elegant piano which is so central to the affecting tone of both these tracks, it is the personality of Jones's vocals which make the streetwise lyrics so memorable in attitude. The sudden surge of aggression preceding the chorus lyric, "oh we're giving it up, ya we're living it up", adds some bitter ambiguity to the refrain,
The record makes a surprising tonal shift in the middle of the tracklist. After the melancholy, lullaby-like 'Skeletons' ends, the piano fades, and the sound of a funky, R&B bassline grows in the background. (Fairly rehearsed-sounding) generic party banter preludes the start of the song proper. 'Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking' dumps the listener into a spirited party jam; with its jazzy interludes and walking basslines it feels just like an old standard, and despite the phoney bandter at the start, it sounds as if everyone involved had a great time recording it.
The terrific 'Pirates (So Lonely Avenue)', which follows, starts with the same high-spirited, funky instrumentation as Woody and Dutch, sounding initially not unlike 'Chuck E's in Love' from her début, yet with another shift in tone, the mood becomes introspective again, and the keys return for the ambiguously hopeful mood of 'A Lucky Guy'. In the eight-minute 'Traces of the Western Slopes' Jones's vocals spiral upwards, adopting an airy, ethereal quality... and plenty of Van Morrison-esque scatting. At the same time, her delivery of the melody leads with confidence and a deserved sense of grandeur. The final track, 'The Returns' is a brief, more grounded finale to the album - the tone is of melancholy optimism. We hear the abrupt line, "one of these days...", and the album ends.
I think that the Jones/Mitchell comparisons were partially a result, inevitably, of the latter's comparative prominence, but predominantly that of Jones's gender and shoulder-length blonde hair. Jones's music had neither the ditzy persona or hippy-dippy attitude of early Mitchell, nor the more moody, jazz-infused, narrative qualities of her later career. Rather, Pirates shares an intensity with Nyro's heartbreaking 1969 album, New York Tendaberry. Nyro's horns on Tendaberry thrust with momentary emotional peaks, confessing all to the listener, whereas on Pirates, Jones's sounds are more warmly inviting. The album has a timeless originality and humanity just as remarkable as her hero's. @128
1. We Belong Together
2. Living It Up
4. Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking
5. Pirates (So Lonely Avenue)
6. A Lucky Guy
7. Traces of the Western Slopes
8. The Returns
S'more trouble dan i's woith (sorry for the 128)