All Ears

Rickie Lee Jones. Courtesy photo.
One of the most lovely surprises of this year’s SXSW was that, after it became clear that Rickie Lee Jones was playing only new songs at the Direct TV taping I caught, I found myself not minding one bit. All the more surprising because I hadn’t heard the songs, just released on The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard (New West), but knew they were based on the words of Jesus.

When songwriters turn to God, it’s often good for the soul but bad for their art. But what a transcendent event! This was no Gospel I’d ever heard, but one Jones had improvised as she recorded, transposing it to our time and making old wisdom fresh, old stories heartbreaking. Jesus Jones is a remainder-bin memory, but Jones/Jesus was the strangest good hybrid of the fest.

It’s not, though, the weirdest in stores this month. For that, she has competition: Ry Cooder, who has collaborated with Cubans, Africans and hillbillies, has now found inspiration in a cat. Not a “cat,” you beboppers — a feline: On the endearingly scrappy My Name is Buddy (Nonesuch), Cooder reimagines Guthrie-era politicking through the eyes of a poor ramblin’ furball. Pairing the tunes with an illustrated storybook, he balladizes with a far-left tilt, occasionally making observations like, “the American worker-citizen is fed a daily diet of garbage and lies...” It suits the Americana-soaked songwriter perfectly. By the way, former San Antonian Vincent Valdez contributed the witty illustrations that adorn Cooder’s storybook.

While he’s setting off on a Police tour, is it wise for Sting to remind us how tame he’s grown in recent years? A new DVD/live CD, The Journey & the Labyrinth (Deutsche Grammophon) does just that, taking a second lute-tastic pass at the songs of Elizabethan composer John Dowland (Sting topped classical charts with a CD of them last year), then caps things off with an awfully unbluesy “Hell Hound on My Trail” and a nicely lonesome “Message in a Bottle.”

If you were a kick-ass pop group like The Flaming Lips, how eager would you be to open your ranks to the woman blamed for breaking up the Beatles? Well, you’re not Wayne Coyne. On Yoko Ono’s Yes, I’m a Witch (Astralwerks), over a dozen acts like Cat Power, Antony, and The Apples in Stereo have recorded instrumental backdrops for the singer’s legendarily, um, interesting vocals. It’s as uneven, unpredictable a trip as you’d expect, but to my knowledge, none of the bands involved have self-destructed yet.

Weird for someone else, but not for him: Ever thought of making a whole album inspired by the eternally repeating jingles that ice cream trucks play? You might if the main tool in your musical arsenal was a mammoth collection of toy pianos. Enter Twink, whose Ice Cream Truckin’ (Mulatta) is a Saturday Morning Funtime full of cheery melodies remixed by producers such as bootleg hero Ergo Phizmiz and Ralph Muha. Expect to either grin like crazy or be driven mad.

And now, the prize for oddest musical inspiration of the month: Listening to Donald Judd (Sub Rosa) by media artist Stephen Vitiello. Commissioned for an installation in Marfa, Vitiello responds to the sculptor’s austere forms and industrial materials by simply placing highly sensitive microphones on pieces of sculpture. Gathering ambient noise and weird resonances, he then manipulates the recordings in the studio, producing an ambient soundscape that’s meditative and, if you know the story, a fitting tribute. (Often, it sounds like nothing more than crickets over a swelling electronic hum.)

Finally, a teary-eyed honorable mention to a band with no bizarre musical inspiration, though they are named for a sex aid: Arab Strap has heeded the great Last Call of rock ’n’ roll, cashing in their fish & chips with Ten Years of Tears (Chemikal Underground), an anthology stretching back to the unreleased 1995 demo “Islands,” through live tracks and Christmas singles (ah, nothing says “Joyeux Noel” like a blotto Scot with a hard-on for Oxycontin!), with the occasional album track thrown on for fun. Goodbye, boys, and may your futures be happy — but if they aren’t, for Pete’s sake, write some songs about it. 

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