Consulting theologians and Bible scholars during the 1990s, photographer, writer, graphic artist, and everyday mystic Lee Cantelon (aka Pennyhead) assembled a small book presenting the words of Jesus Christ (just Jesus' words, not the stuff surrounding them) in a fitting translation called The Words. He did it for the purpose of presenting those words to people who were not "religious" -- people who were put off by organized religion or even offended by it. In 2005, using artist Marc Chiat's studio (on Exposition Boulevard) as the recording space, he invited a number of musicians to begin assembling backing tracks for a spoken word rendition of his book (Mike Watt was just one participant, reading "The Harvest" over the music). Rickie Lee Jones was invited to participate in the summer of 2006, and in a matter of moments she changed the entire nature of the project. Jones claimed she could not read the words with any authority, but asked if she could sing them. She was left alone in a room with a microphone and, without the text, completely improvised the words from her heart. There were two tracks taken from those sessions, the opening cut, "Nobody Knows My Name," and "Where I Like It Best." Those two cuts appear here unchanged from the original recordings made on Exposition Boulevard, as are two others ("I Was There," "Donkey Ride") recorded later at Sunset Sound -- first takes, no alterations. The rest were done using the same basic principle, with The Words as the inspiration. The end result is easily the most arresting recording of Rickie Lee Jones' labyrinthine career.
The songs Jones cut at Exposition Boulevard sat on a shelf for a while, until she contacted producer Rob Schnapf and asked him to recruit the same musicians to go further. The sheer organic nature of some of these recordings is more akin to what indie rock musicians would try to pull off because of budgetary constraints. Understandable, but the end result here is something so completely unraveled, moving, and beautiful, something so unexpected -- even from a latter-day Beat chanteuse like Jones -- that it can only be called art. Certainly many of these songs feel raw, but they are supposed to; it's not artifice, it's inspiration. Check the opener, "Nobody Knows My Name," where a three-chord Velvet Underground-styled vamp gives way to Jones as she channels Jesus walking through the streets of history and particularly Los Angeles, as himself, as disguised as a suicide, as a player, as every woman and man, and comes out truly anonymous. The pain in her voice when she gets to the refrains is the wail we only get from her in live performances. This is likewise the case in "Gethsemane," a tad -- not much -- more polished, and once more with Jones as Jesus, here relating the agonizing experience of the beginning of Jesus' moment of trial before he has been handed over to be put to death. In her voice she says, "I'd like to just sleep awhile" in near whimsy, but the agony is there. In "Lamp of the Body," with Peter Atanasoff, Bernie Larsen, and Joey Maramba in a combined Eastern and Western lilting rock groove as intruding sounds enter the mix, Jones sings as Jesus with the lamp of the body being the eye: "See the darkness shine/How great is the dark/See the dark/And are there not 12 hours of daylight/But if you walk by night/You will fall...." This gives way to the nearly pop-sounding "It Hurts." This track simply has to be heard to be believed. It rocks, it rolls, it stings and stabs, and it breezily calls forth all the complex emotions of being human and divine. It's angry and tender, uncertain and immediate.
Is this "Christian" music? Not in any CCM sense. It's punk rock, it's shimmering heat L.A back-court street rock, it's back-porch rock, garage rock, and just plain rock. But Jones is trying in her way to offer proof of the inspiration she found in Cantelon's book, and to relate the humanity of the one called Jesus Christ as an actual person, who is in and around every one of us, no matter how broken, poor, angry, violent, deceitful, happy, or wealthy. There is no new agey overtone to this set. And besides all that, it rocks, it rolls, it swings and strolls. This is pop music from the jump, but it's pop that would never, ever be considered for play anywhere except on the home jukebox. And there is no Christian-ese; probably some fundamentalists who want their God held above street level, up in the heavens, will find this offensive, but that's too damn bad. The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard feels raw and immediate, and most of all, it rings true. The music here was made because Jones had to make it. There isn't any calculation here and New West should be applauded for putting this baby on the market. The songs on this record feel like they come from the street in order to go back there, not to witness or testify, but simply to be there as a witness to life in the process of spending itself.
The Jesus of this record isn't a Christian; he warns people (as he did in the Bible) to be wary of the religious. It's very much a Los Angeles album, but it translates in heart to Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Miami, Baltimore, or anywhere else. On "Elvis Cadillac," the hallucinatory Elvis, or perhaps Jesus, is writing a letter to his father about all that has transpired and how he wishes he could just sing his song; it's strange and winding and faltering and beautiful. On the closing track, "I Was There," a nearly eight-and-a-half-minute tome is performed completely solo on guitars and whispering keyboards in a circular chord set that wouldn't have been out of place on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. She is speaking to Christ in reverie, in a love song of a different kind, but a true love song nonetheless: "Most of all I loved your hands/I loved them so much it hurt/And all the bartenders knew your name/And all the pimps knew your car...and we were blessed/Yes we are...and I was there where Jesus walked." What's amazing is how easy to believe she is. She is speaking in her own kind of tongues here, and we are all the richer for it. This is the least polished and crafted recording of Rickie Lee Jones' career, and it stands alone in her catalog. It's a ragged kid in ripped blue jeans singing her heart out to you without drama or falsity. How can it be anything less than a masterpiece?