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New York Times (NY) June 12, 1983


Section: 2

STEVIE NICKS AND RICKIE LEE JONES CARRY ON THE TORCH

STEPHEN HOLDEN

The newest albums by Stevie Nicks and Rickie Lee Jones both stand firmly against the prevailing pop trend toward aural mechanization and cool-headed irony.

True to its title, "The Wild Heart" (Modern 90084), Miss Nicks's second solo album, billows with fervent romantic breast-beating. Miss Jones's mini-LP, "Girl At Her Volcano" (Warner Bros. 23805), is even more passionate and fraught with personal idiosyncracies. Though the musical vocabularies of these records are quite different, they both have a strong elegiac feeling. Miss Nicks's album is dedicated to a close friend who died; five of the seven songs on Miss Jones's album evoke bygone relationships.

Both women belong to a female torch troubadour tradition that became entrenched in pop in the late 60's. Miss Nicks's erotic musings have much in common with Joni Mitchell's love songs of a decade ago. While she lacks Miss Mitchell's psychological insights and eye for social detail, her songs describe the erotic life with the same mixture of exhilaration and anguish. And like Miss Mitchell's early 70's music, her songs are firmly grounded in folk-rock.

Rickie Lee Jones's music is jazzier, more ornate, and farther from the mainstream. While the new album contains only one original song, "Hey, Bub," Miss Jones's musical personality is so strong that she lends everything she touches an expressionistic moodiness that makes it sound brand new. Wildly eclectic, her hipsterish rock-jazz persona embraces influences sources as diverse as 1940's jazz torch singing, Van Morrison, beat poetry, "West Side Story," and most especially, Laura Nyro.

"The Wild Heart" marks both a recapitulation and a broadening of Stevie Nicks's musical scope. Miss Nicks's work with Fleetwood Mac has tended to emphasize the more delicate side of her musical personality. In the context of the group, her role has been that of a privileged princess of the occult whose fanciful folk-pop fairy tales balance the group's harder-edged music. On her solo albums, however, Miss Nicks doesn't maintain such a scrupulously pretty image. "The Wild Heart," like "Bella Donna" before it, contains several lusty rock performances, including a duet with Tom Petty. Three songs are collaborations with the Texas rock singer and songwriter Sandy Stewart, and the collaboration has helped to open up Miss Nicks's music. Two of the vocal arrangements feature Miss Nicks singing countermelodies against her own lead vocal lines, and the syncopated synthesizer work on several cuts also skillfully injects an strain of Los Angeles pop-funk into the folk-rock settings.

The album's most captivating number is Miss Nicks's original song, "Beauty and the Beast." A stately waltz, inspired by the Jean Cocteau film, the song evokes the film's penultimate moment of transformation in a glowing pop-symphonic arrangement whose aural opulence outshines even Fleetwood Mac's more elaborate studio concoctions. It is easily Miss Nicks's finest composition to date.

While "The Wild Heart" sounds like a million dollars, the quality of Miss Nicks's symbolist, free-associative lyrics remains uneven. At their most self-indulgent, Miss Nicks's reflections suggest the diaristic jottings of a high school girl with literary pretensions. But in her more disciplined verses, she manipulates striking, archetypal imagery into a half-comprehensible personal mythology. Miss Nicks's "poetry" is ultimately a very feminine extension of the stream-of-consciousness symbolism that Bob Dylan legitimized as a pop lyric style and that Joni Mitchell refined into a journalistically precise pop poetry. Miss Nicks, though not as powerful as Dylan or as precise as Mitchell, at least has the courage of her esthetic convictions. She weaves frank evocations of erotic turmoil with occult speculations into a pop vocabulary that is all her own.

On "Girl At Her Volcano," Rickie Lee Jones communicates a sense of emotional risk that's so relentless it can be disturbing. Like Judy Garland and the young Laura Nyro, she uses her full emotional capacity at all times, magnifying everything with an operatic sense of drama. The new record's most disquieting moments are her highly mannered, iconoclastic concert performances of "Lush Life" and "My Funny Valentine." The singer takes each song haltingly, phrase by phrase, using wrenchingly abrupt dynamic changes in which the voice breaks unexpectedly from a trembling, frayed whisper into an agonized wail. These shifts come so quickly that Miss Jones sometimes appears to be adopting different personalities from moment to moment. Though her readings don't resemble conventional interpretations so much as composites of different approaches, the ferocious emotional intensity she brings to the material gives her renditions a quirky consistency.

It also helps that Miss Jones possesses the formidable technical skills to make her volatile dynamic changes and tonal embellishments work musically. Like Sarah Vaughan, Phoebe Snow and only a handful of other pop singers, Rickie Lee Jones is thrilling to listen to no matter what she does. It helps, too, that her stylistic range embraces jazz, pop, soul, and rock.

Two of the new album's high points are her performances of the 60's rock hits "Under the Boardwalk' and "Walk Away Renee." In its original version by the Drifters, "Under the Boardwalk" was a peppy, Latin-flavored pop tune celebrating the joys of summer. But Miss Jones and her band build it into a rhapsodic celebration of youth itself in which Miss Jones's steamy, feline soprano, mingling with the voices of the men in her band, suggests a theatrical ballet on some mythical beach.

Miss Jones likewise blows up the sweet little psychedelic ballad, "Walk Away Renee," into a full-scale theatrical lament. Like "Traces of the Western Slope," the centerpiece of her last album, "Pirates," "Walk Away Renee" echoes with ghostly inner voices, tensely dramatic piano passages and rustling bells. A simple song of goodbye has been transformed into a song of supernatural connection between lovers. The measure of Rickie Lee Jones's talent is that she brings off musical concepts that would seem hopelessly pretentious were any other singer to attempt them. The key to her success, even beyond her technical skills, is a piercing emotional conviction.