To fans of her four albums of marvelous acoustic pop in the mid-to-late â€™80s, Marti Jones seemed on the cusp of becoming the next (albeit far hipper) Linda Ronstadt. Jones had inherited La Ronstadtâ€™s knack for putting a mainstream sheen on the songs of neglected rock tunesmiths; meanwhile, her partnership (professional and otherwise) with producer Don Dixon brought her music a modernist edge even as the couple matched terrific melodies with her bright, if slightly world-weary, alto voice.
Their creative alchemy reached its zenith on 1988â€™s Used Guitars, one of the decadeâ€™s finest recordings, and a celebratory four-night run at the Bottom Line in New York that brought together all the albumâ€™s songwriters. Those shows (and a subsequent appearance on Late Night with David Letterman) were a highlight of Jones and Dixonâ€™s never-ending tours of those years, which we discussed last week here at Popdose. But a funny thing happened along Jonesâ€™ ascent as the pre-eminent interpreter of modern pop: Used Guitars, like her previous albums, didnâ€™t sell, and neither did its highly touted follow-up, Any Kind of Lie. Within a couple years she had parted ways with two different major labels and found herself effectively out of the industry.
Since then Jones has released precisely two studio albums in two decades, focusing instead on her budding career as a painter; these days youâ€™re far more likely to find the fruits of her creative labor on a gallery wall than in a concert hall. Her paintings reveal the same idiosyncratic spirit that always characterized her musical performances â€“ sometimes serious, sometimes whimsical, always authentic. Popdose posted an exclusive “official bootleg” of a Don-and-Marti show last week; next week, Jones will discuss her recent endeavors, as well as the highlights of her musical career, in an exhaustive Popdose interview. Until then, you may view some of her artwork at www.martijonesdixon.com, and join us now as we explore her back (and, in far too many cases, out-of-print) catalog.
Jones, a product of the surprising musical hotbed that was northeastern Ohio in the 1970s, began her career playing the club circuit in the Akron-Canton area. Friend and fellow Ohioan Liam Sternberg, who was already an established producer and songwriter by 1980, gave Jones her first studio experience singing demos â€“ including one for a Sternberg ditty that eventually became one of the decadeâ€™s biggest and most polarizing hits (more about that next week). It was Sternberg who suggested she join up with the three members of Color Me Gone, an established Akron act in need of a lead singer. He then arranged a deal for the band with A&M Records, resulting in this six-song EP of promising, if slight, jangle-pop.
The tuneful lead track â€œLose Controlâ€ set the tone; songwriter/guitarist George Cabaniss (formerly, if briefly, one of the Stiv Bators-led Dead Boys) kept things tuneful and gave Jones plenty of dramatic high notes, qualities also employed to good effect on â€œAlmost Heavenâ€ and â€œJuly/December.â€ The production (by the high-profile trio of Sternberg, David Anderle and Barry Mraz) and the musicianship are workmanlike, the harmonies somewhat less so. What really leaps off the grooves, of course, is Jonesâ€™ voice â€“ which explains why, when Jones bailed out on the band following a dust-up with Cabaniss, A&M gave her a solo deal and relegated the rest of the band to obscurity.
Jonesâ€™ career path â€“ not to mention the course of her personal life â€“ was set when A&M arranged for Dixon to produce her first solo outing. (The two had met prior to the Color Me Gone EPâ€™s release, when her fellow band members were shopping for a producer to remix the record; Dixon had told them to leave well enough alone.) Quickly discovering they were simpatico on any number of levels, Jones and Dixon got out of the gate in a hurry with Unsophisticated Time. Itâ€™s a record full of gorgeous melodies, experimental bits, and well-chosen covers (the dBâ€™sâ€™ â€œLonely Is (As Lonely Does),â€ Richard Baroneâ€™s â€œShow and Tellâ€). Dixon penned four tracks, including a brilliant song of regret that became a staple of the duoâ€™s live act, and which he later reclaimed for himself (twice!) on his odds-and-ends collection Note Pad #38: â€œ(If I Could) Walk Away.â€
Jonesâ€™ rendition of Elvis Costelloâ€™s â€œThe Element Within Herâ€ was a particular critical favorite, and commenced her series of fine covers of his work. But the best-remembered track off Unsophisticated Time is a tune Dixon brought to Jones from his buddy Bland Simpson of the Red Clay Ramblers. â€œFollow You All Over the Worldâ€ is witty, heartfelt, beautifully sung â€“ it is, in short, one of The Greatest Love Songs Ever. â€œIt continues to be the track of mine that everybody remembers â€“ I had to quit [one of the social-networking sites] because I was getting a million e-mails from people wanting the guitar tabs for it,â€ she says now. â€œItâ€™s funny that itâ€™s so attached to me, but Iâ€™m thrilled about that â€“ itâ€™s a great song.â€
Eager to parlay the critical acclaim for Unsophisticated Time into an actual hit record, A&M, Dixon and Jones assembled an all-star lineup of songwriters and musicians for the recording of Match Game. The albumâ€™s back cover fairly screamed its creatorsâ€™ commercial ambitions, name-checking those contributors prominently even as the freshly permed Jones offered up her best glam pose for the camera. Thereâ€™s a metaphor in there somewhere, of course, and there are indeed moments on Match Game when Jones seems buried under those ambitions and the collective weight of her supporting cast.
To be sure, there are fine moments as well. The big chorus of â€œWeâ€™re Doing Alrightâ€ provides immediate uplift on side one, courtesy of songwriter Reed Nielsen (late of the Nielsen/Pierson Band), while Jonesâ€™ countrified cover of Costelloâ€™s elegy â€œJust a Memoryâ€ verges on majestic â€“ as well it should, considering the personnel on the track (Marshall and Robert Crenshaw, T-Bone Burnett, Paul Carrack, Anne Richmond Boston of the Swimming Pool Qâ€™s). Interestingly, while he plays on a couple of other tracks, Marshall Crenshaw didnâ€™t participate in the remaking of his own â€œWhenever Youâ€™re On My Mindâ€ â€“ an adult-contemporary-ish interpretation that overlays nice backing vocals on the chorus but features an overly pristine vocal from Jones in what sounds like a blatant play for a pop hit. It didnâ€™t happen; in fact, Match Game failed to build much on the momentum engendered by her debut album, and wound up contributing fewer tracks to Jonesâ€™ concert repertoire than her other records.
Two years later, in the midst of 1988â€™s boomlet of new female voices, Jones returned with her finest album â€“ an eclectic achievement that showcased three wonderful songs co-written with Dixon as well as an impeccably chosen set of covers. Of the originals, the free-spirited â€œTourist Townâ€ was perhaps the albumâ€™s signature moment â€“ the song she performed on Letterman, and that received the most radio airplay â€“ but the horn-laden â€œTwisted Vinesâ€ is practically as good. Janis Ian and Kye Fleming contributed two superb songs, the lovely â€œKeep Me in the Darkâ€ and the torch song â€œRuby,â€ which became a favorite in live performance. John Hiatt, a year removed from his own commercial breakthrough with Bring the Family, also contributed two fine tracks, the uptempo â€œThe Real Oneâ€ and the gorgeous album-closing ballad â€œIf I Can Love Somebody.â€
Bland Simpsonâ€™s â€œWind in the Treesâ€ features dramatic octave shifts between the verses and bridges that allow Jones to show the power in her upper register. Then thereâ€™s her delicious take on a brilliant song from Graham Parkerâ€™s Real Macaw album, â€œYou Canâ€™t Take Love for Granted.â€ Jones shifts expertly between a detached, almost laconic tone in the verses, which concern the slights inflicted upon each other by a pair of longtime lovers, and the snarling envy of the bridge as she stands alone and watches them waste their good fortune. Used Guitars was, and remains, essential listening for any fan of singer/songwriter folk-pop; sadly, it got lost in the shuffle of those new female artists, and received what Jones considered a grossly inadequate push from A&M. In fact, she was so disappointed by the labelâ€™s indifference that she asked out of her contract and signed with RCA for her next album.
Empowered by the success of their songwriting efforts on Used Guitars, Jones and Dixon largely followed their own muse on its follow-up. Any Kind of Lie features only two covers, Clive Gregsonâ€™s â€œSecond Choiceâ€ and Loudon Wainwright IIIâ€™s beautiful â€œOld Friendâ€; unfortunately, not enough of the originals here live up to the high standard of â€œTourist Townâ€ or â€œTwisted Vines.â€ The opening track, â€œLiving Inside the Wind,â€ and several others recall the breezy spirit of those earlier songs, but occasionally the arrangements become too sophisticated, the songs too stylistically diverse for the albumâ€™s own good, perhaps in an effort to ensure a hit for her new label. Dixon at times seems to think that more of everything â€“ a brighter sound, denser percussion, layered backing vocals â€“ will add up to a more radio-friendly production. What gets lost is the emotional connection that Used Guitars and Unsophisticated Time achieved so easily; itâ€™s ironic, yet undeniable, that Jones seemed more at home on those cover-heavy sets than she does here.
Any Kind of Lie didnâ€™t achieve any kind of chart success, and a regime change at RCA cost Jones her key supporter at the label, Bob Buziak. Jones, along with numerous other acts, was summarily dropped, at which point Jones and Dixon decided to begin raising a family. Their daughter, Shane, became Jonesâ€™ top priority, and she wouldnâ€™t release another album for six years.
The independent label Sugar Hill announced in early â€™96 that it would be releasing a pair of Jones albums just a few months apart. First came this six-year-old live recording, committed to 24-track during a set at the Spirit Square Center for the Arts in Charlotte during the summer of 1990. As a document of the Any Kind of Lie tour it sounds great, and as a reminder of the wonderful Don-and-Marti shows of the late â€™80s it served as a nice re-introduction to an artist whoâ€™d been away too long. The set focuses, for obvious reasons, on the album she was promoting at the time, and features faithful renditions of songs like â€œIâ€™ve Got Second Sight.â€ But it also features a nice selection of tunes from her earlier albums; itâ€™s heavier on Used Guitars than its predecessors, but includes a nice version of â€œInside These Armsâ€ from Match Game. (Other tracks from Live at Spirit Square were posted last week; grab â€™em while theyâ€™re still there, if you havenâ€™t already.)
Jones gets the explanations for her extended absence over with in the opening seconds of My Long-Haired Life. The title itself (and the cover painting that accompanies it) intimate that pop-star glamour has been traded in for child-rearing efficiency; the babyâ€™s laughter that kicks off her cover of Nick Loweâ€™s â€œI Love the Sound of Breaking Glassâ€ tell listeners all they need to know about where Jonesâ€™ head is at. Fortunately, her new priorities (and the attendant lowered expectations) seem to focus the emotional impact of My Long-Haired Life, rather than diminish it. Gone are the production gimmicks that weighed down parts of Any Kind of Lie; back is the delightful eclecticism of Jones and Dixonâ€™s cover choices, from the soulful (Otis Reddingâ€™s â€œChampagne and Wine,â€ a duet with Dixon on Joe Texâ€™s â€œYou Got What It Takesâ€) to the singer/songwriter-y (Costelloâ€™s â€œSleep of the Just,â€ Aimee Mannâ€™s â€œPut Me on Topâ€). The four originals include a couple of terrific efforts, â€œItâ€™s Not What I Wantâ€ and Dixonâ€™s â€œLifeâ€™s a Game.â€ All told, My Long-Haired Life marks a blissfully welcome return â€“ and a return to form.
â€œThe years go by so easily,â€ Jones sings on â€œCelebrity in Exile,â€ the centerpiece of the album that followed another six-year absence from the recording studio. Those years may not have gone quite so easily â€“ along with considerable domestic bliss, they brought turmoil as well (Dixonâ€™s 2001 heart attack, for one thing). They also brought Jones new songwriting concerns, not to mention new partners â€“ Richard Barone on â€œCelebrity in Exile,â€ and Kelley Ryan of astroPuppees, who wrote one song apiece with Jones and Dixon. Jones and Ryan collaborated on the album opener â€œAlways,â€ a gorgeous and plaintive track that sounds unlike anything Jones had recorded to date. (Ryanâ€™s girlish backing vocals mark a profound departure in and of themselves.) The track portends the quiet that pervades My Tidy Doily Dream â€“ not always a quiet of contentment, but a quiet of maturity and rumination, and sureness of purpose. Itâ€™s a lovely album, if not as stylistically ambitious as her previous work â€“ nothing here rises above a midtempo groove, as though Jones is determined not to disturb the wheels of time as they keep turning. (The passage of time, and the juxtaposition of past and present, are persistent themes, most prominently in the elegiac set closer â€œLast of the Lukewarm Lovers.â€) One can only hope this isnâ€™t Jonesâ€™ last studio album â€“ hers is too precious a voice to be silenced â€“ but if it is, itâ€™s a softly caressing, heartfelt way to go out.
It began with a request from a friend who was putting together an album of lullabies to sell in hospitals to new parents. It continued with Jonesâ€™ desire to record, but lack of interest in putting together a complete album. And it came together when Kelley Ryan and erstwhile Gin Blossom Jesse Valenzuela contributed the nifty tune â€œLucky Stars,â€ a song good enough to build an album around. Thatâ€™s what Jones and Dixon have done here, joining six soothing songs with five delicate musical interludes and making the result available for download. While hardly a major addition to eitherâ€™s catalog, this serves as a sweet little coda for Jonesâ€™ career to date â€“ one whose last vocal track, â€œLove Is An Ocean,â€ is (fittingly) a romantic duet.