the biggest challenge to anyone pondering Rickie Lee Jones' new "Ghostyhead" is getting over the concept -- hip-hop electronica meets that lady who most ravers remember best from her MTV debut, sitting at the piano in a floppy purple hat with Dr. John, flirting through "Makin' Whoopee." The stink of old farts purchasing hipness at full retail is certainly in the air on "Ghostyhead" -- though with U2 so thoroughly smelling up the place, you'd think nobody'd even notice.
Rickie Lee, strange though it sounds, is perfect for this sort of endeavor. "Ghostyhead" isn't as good as it could've been, but it's not anywhere near as bad as possible, either. The key is that she's an exemplary candidate for divadom -- an idea confirmed by last winter's bootleg remixes of an overlooked Jones classic, "Livin' it Up." Junior Vasquez -- a New York DJ who did one remix, stripped the song of almost everything but Jones' vocals, then over- and underlaid it with his own house rhythms -- wound up proving that, unlike most singer-songwriters, Jones' scratchy, not-innocent-anymore-dammit little girl plaint is both beautiful enough and fucked up enough to make the ideal front piece for dance music.
It's Jones' singing, more than anything else that she does, that drives people into paroxysms of worship, and on "Ghostyhead," it's her voice that provides the most transcendent moments. Her lyrics are so-so, if not downright annoying ("Matters": "It doesn't matter if you're fat, wear a helmet or a hat"), and it's clear that the most interesting musical aspects of "Ghostyhead" -- the sampling ephemera, the funked-up hip-hop -- she probably had little, if anything, to do with.
DJs Rick Boston and Robert Devery built "Ghostyhead" from what seem almost like thrown-away sounds -- familiar-yet-unnamable samples litter their bass-heavy landscape. They rely on sweetly tuned guitar and harmonious synths to reach heavenward, while the thump-thump bottom plods on. "Ghostyhead's" finest moments arrive unexpectedly, in the all-too-short alleys when Jones lets go of form and lyric and lets her instrument find its way through the songs' deep space. "Clouds of Unknowing" works that way, as does "Vessel of Light"; she keens and breathes and cries the high notes, while Lee Cantelon picks an abstract guitar line and Jay Lane taps his high-hat and foot trunk delicately in the background.
When Jones gets specific in lyric, "Ghostyhead" goes awry. "Road Kill" irritates with its pseudo-psychic ramblings, and "Firewalker," though pleasingly dirty, with its references to bus stations and Tenderloin ecstasy, is uncomfortably close to self-help set to Modern Rock radio. The exception is "Little Yellow Town," a patch of irresistible grooves for Rickie Lee to lay down on and ponder, rendering thoughts like "She's a real down girl. Yes, it's eating out her mind."
One wouldn't expect Rickie Lee Jones to work so well as sonic wallpaper, but, in the tradition of fine electronica, she does. The best way to get at "Ghostyhead's" brilliant moments is to leave the room where it's playing and let the beautiful nuggets hit you at their leisure. In that way alone, Jones is an unusual diva. She won't grab you by the throat to get your attention. Instead, she makes you do the work.