Captain Beefheart was known to playfully admonish fans shouting out requests at his shows by saying, "You know I'm gonna do exactly what I want." No one has documented Rickie Lee Jones saying the same thing, but in the course of a recording career that's just entered its fourth decade, she's made it clear that she shares the same philosophy, and she's bravely followed her muse wherever it chooses to go, rather than rehashing the sound and style of Rickie Lee Jones and Pirates, the acclaimed early recordings which made her a star. Jones certainly hasn't lost her love for the blues and jazz flavors that dominated her best-known work, but on 2009's Balm in Gilead (the title is drawn from a traditional spiritual), there's significantly less flash and swagger in her music; instead, these performances speak of an intimacy and warmth that befits the lyrics, which concern themselves with love, family, friendship, and the stuff that makes up everyday lives (something of a switch after the broadsides of The Evening of My Best Day and the spiritual mysteries of The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard). Jones duets with Vic Chesnutt on two numbers, the country-influenced weeper "Remember Me" and a spectral gospel variant, "His Jeweled Floor" (which also features Victoria Williams), and these two gloriously idiosyncratic talents bring out the best in one another, discovering a compelling mystery in their rural inflections that's an ideal match for the material. Ben Harper also lends his talents to this album, and his duet with Jones, "Old Enough," is a blues-infused tale of a busted romance that has a bit of the sass of "Chuck E.'s in Love," but half a lifetime's added depth and subtle detail. Jones opens the set with "Wild Girl," a song written for her daughter, and it's one of the most heartfelt and simply affecting moments on this album, along with "The Moon Is Made of Gold," a sweetly swinging lullaby that was written by her father when she was just a girl. And if songs like "Bonfires," "Eucalyptus Trail," "The Gospel of Carlos, Norman and Smith," and "Bayless St." don't lend themselves to simple categorization, they're all quietly beautiful and filled with a gentle passion that never sounds anything less than fearlessly honest. Rickie Lee Jones sounds less like a Hipster Chick and more like an Earth Mother whose experience has brought her plenty of wisdom on Balm in Gilead, and that's clearly just the way she wants it; Jones' faith in her own creative judgment is well-founded, and this is a work whose modest scale belies its emotional strength.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming