On Second Thought: Rickie Lee Jones – Flying Cowboys (1989)

Rickie Lee Jones has produced a series of stellar albums (including her self-titled debut, Pirates and The Magazine, among others) and more than one head shaker (the dismal album Pop Pop and 2009’s Ben Harper train wreck The Devil You Know). Perhaps one of the commonalities regarding her great albums is the use of strong, yet empathetic, producers. Jones’ better albums have been produced by a variety of giants including Lenny Waronker, James Newton Howard, and Russ Titelman.

1989’s Flying Cowboys marked another left turn in her career, coming five years after her mystifying, yet ultimately, satisfying release, The Magazine. It is rumored that when a journalist asked Jones who would she like to work with on her next project, she remarked she wanted someone from Steely Dan. Luckily for Jones, one half of Steely Dan was available and willing to take on the album that became Flying Cowboys.

It is said she loved Steely Dan’s Royal Scam album, but also that she considered it “boy music.” There was some concern, too, that the spontaneity of her demos would not make it to the record. Any apprehension about Walter Becker not being a sympathetic producer was quickly dispelled in the first song, “The Horses.” Becker does cast a Steely Dan-like sheen on the song (and also gets co-writing credit), but he also produces a touching and vivid picture of parenthood. The producer also brings in a familiar group of studio aces for the album: “The Horses” prominently features Michael Omartian on piano and a moving drum track by John Robinson.

In interviews after the album’s release, Becker frequently commented that his approach to Rickie Lee Jones was to listen to her demo and determine what if anything was needed to compliment her songs. On tracks like “Just My Baby,” “Rodeo Girl,” ”Ghost Train” and the remake of “Don’t let The Sun Catch You Crying,” Becker added a few additional colors but the original canvas Jones had from her demos was left intact. “Ghost Train” contained Jones’ demo vocals and guitar parts, with just the addition of Jim Keltner’s drum effect.

The single “Satellites” has a full-band sound but also an airiness in the recording and an elegant Bob Sheppard soprano sax part. Becker picks up the bass and play on the title track. As usual, Becker is rock solid with drummer Peter Erskine; a perfect contrast to Jones’ mystical and vivid lyrics.

Flying Cowboys makes the listener imagine the limits to the Becker/Jones collaboration. Sadly, this is the only album the two have worked on together. Jones took another musical left turn with very unfortunate results, recording another album of covers called Pop Pop, produced by David Was. Clearly, Jones picked the wrong Was “brother.”

Jones has a release of all new material scheduled for 2014.

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Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Chicago. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.