CD Review of The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard by Rickie Lee Jones

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The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard
starstarstarstarhalf star Label: New West
Released: 2007
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Before listening to The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, it helps to know a few things about the project. They aren’t essential, necessarily – in fact, if you’re the sort of person who prefers to hear a new piece of music blind, as it were, you may wish to skip this paragraph – but a little background information can be helpful when approaching a project this woolly and sprawling. What you might want to know is that this album sprang forth from a book, “The Words,” in which author Lee Cantelon, as he put it, tried to “write the words of Jesus in modern language, and publish them outside the New Testament.” In an effort to record a spoken-word album based on the book, Cantelon assembled a cast of musical characters (including Minutemen/fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt, who was to be the project’s narrator) at an art studio in Southern California and let the tape roll.

And then Rickie Lee Jones walked in.

That sounds dramatic, but there’s really no other way to describe a situation in which a singer shows up cold, ostensibly to do a spoken-word piece, ends up delivering a first-take vocal that was essentially made up on the spot, and takes hold of the project from there on out. If Jones doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice for a Christian album, well, she isn’t; but this isn’t like any Christian music you’ve ever heard. In fact, it might not be like any music you’ve ever heard – the most common touchstones cited for the album are early Velvet Underground and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and they both do a decent job of giving prospective listeners an idea of what’s going on here, but just an idea.

If you’ve spent any length of time with Jones’ work – particularly her post-Traffic from Paradise output – you’ll have a vague sense of what to expect; few artists have covered as much ground simply through sheer, willful experimentation. Even at her most abstruse, however, Jones has always seemed to have an internal roadmap. Here, the listener gets the feeling that even Rickie Lee has no idea what to expect from the music. The effect is occasionally dissonant, even disorienting, but over time, The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard reveals itself as a powerful, strangely exhilarating listen.

As it’s grown easier to record performances track by track, to “fix it in the mix,” or to simply use Pro Tools to wipe imperfections out of existence, truly honest music has become such a rare commodity that we often don’t know what to do with it when we hear it. There aren’t many musicians – particularly ones with Rickie Lee Jones’ name value – with the chutzpah to follow their muses so freely. This album is a lot of things, many of them impossible to squeeze into the written word, but most of all, it’s the sound of an artist operating without a safety net. An unfamiliar noise, to be sure, and not for everyone – but immensely, unexpectedly rewarding nonetheless.

~Jeff Giles