SHE's back - the ``Duchess of Coolsville,'' as the critics dubbed her - and she's hipper than ever. Rickie Lee Jones, beatnik sweetheart with a voice of velvet, has just completed her first album in five years, ``Flying Cowboys.'' For her fans, it was worth the wait. Like the singer herself, who is now a wife and mother, ``Cowboys'' is more mature than Jones's earlier work. This album shows her as a talented musician, and, produced by Walter Becker, it has a consistency that Jones's earlier albums lacked. Songs range from reggae (``Ghetto of My Mind'') to the spectacular title track, to smooth pop in ``Satellites'' (released as a single), a new version of the 1960s Merseybeat classic ``Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying,'' and the melodic ``Rodeo Girl,'' on which Jones plays all instruments except drums.
Unfortunately, ``Cowboys'' lacks the quirks and spontaneity that made Jones a breath of fresh air when she hit the music scene with a splash in 1979 and won a Grammy for ``best new artist'' with her debut album, which included the hits ``Chuck E.'s in Love'' and ``Danny's All-Star Joint.'' This new album is more polished - perhaps a letdown for fans of her first work but likely to appeal to a larger audience.
Reached by phone at home in southern California, the singer spoke about her music, about growing up, and about the loves of her life: her husband, musician Pascal Nabet-Meyer (whom she met in Tahiti when she was looking for a ride to the Gauguin museum), and their two-year-old daughter, Charlotte Rose.
``I think it's simpler, more defined musically,'' says Jones of ``Cowboys.'' The songs are still stories about people - her specialty - but they're shorter and more contained.
Jones, who describes herself as ``a jazz singer who writes stories,'' says that half the time she writes music first; other times the lyrics inspire the music.
``Sometimes they take years, and sometimes they take a week,'' she says, laughing and adding quickly in her characteristic self-cross-check: ``Well, I don't know if they take a week. One probably took a week.''
When she's not making her own music, Jones is most likely listening to her old ``heroes'' John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Van Morrison or to new bands like Blue Nile from Scotland and the Pogues from Ireland.
``I don't listen to the radio much,'' says Jones, adding that she doesn't know if her new songs are being played, even though airplay is crucial to album sales. ``I would like to hear [the title track] `Flying Cowboys' on the radio 'cause I think it's a really cool song, ..., but the way radio is now - I shouldn't say this - but it's not very flattering to be played on it.''
The songs on this album, she says, are like an artist's painting in their expression of their creator's feelings. She sings about children, lovers, heroes, growing up. In ``The Horses,'' she sings: ``I'll pick you up darlin' if you fall/ Don't you worry 'bout a thing little girl/ Because I was young myself not so long ago/ ... And when I was young, oh I was a wild, wild one.''
This album, says Jones, leaves the listener with ``an image of strength ..., of hope, and healing.''
But critics have dredged up Jones's troubles with drugs, to the musician's dismay. Not because she's ashamed, but because she considers those matters private affairs which are over now. ``It's really important to forgive yourself for wanting to take drugs and needing to take drugs, and then to rework and remake a world and a self that doesn't want or need those things. ... I don't talk about it, because it's not crusading. It's a very private thing, and I don't like to mix it up with my career. ... I think my writing is too excellent and my work is too good to always be you know, `songwriter slash drug-abuser.'''
``It's just such a popular theme to have a broken woman who's still standing,'' says Jones, accusing the media of sexism: ``They don't make such a big deal out of Mick Jagger or Keith Richards destroying themselves. But when women do it, people are so much more offended. ... I think that men are allowed to be much more despicable, much more destructive and much more careless with themselves than women are,'' she said, pausing to think. ``Too bad for men, huh?''
What's next for Jones? ``Keep growing up,'' she says. ``Or you'll grow old.''
Jones plans to tour in the US beginning this spring. In the meantime, she's content at home with her family - where her daughter is already taking after mom, writing and singing songs of her own.