Marti Jones has a rich, clear voice that possesses both sultry siren tones and vulnerability, making her an ideally sensitive interpreter for such songwriters as John Hiatt, Graham Parker, Janis Ian, Marshall Crenshaw, Elvis Costello, and Loudon Wainwright III. Her warm vocal style has prompted some critics to compare her to Annie Lennox and Anne Murray, and her selection of top-shelf songs has led to comparisons to Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt.
Jones was raised near the industrial town of Akron, Ohio, an area that boasts a diverse and energetic pop music heritage that includes Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Rachel Sweet, Pere Ubu, Lene Lovich, and the Waitresses. Jones began performing with her sisters in a folk music group. She recorded as the singer for the Akron group Color Me Gone in 1984. That group’s self-titled extended play single included six songs, about which Trouser Press scribe Ira Robbins noted: “Without really holding to any style, the Ohio quartet flirts with radio rock, neo-ethnic Americana, country (in that mode, the downcast ‘Hurtin’ You’ is the best thing here) and ‘60s-ish folk-rock, winding up pleasant but unmemorable.” Robbins favorably reviewed Jones’s vocals, as well as the recording’s “nice arrangements and clear production” that Robbins believed “allowed her to draw everything out of the six agreeable songs.”
For her first solo effort Jones recruited Don Dixon. Dixon had begun his career as a bass player, song-writer, and singer in a North Carolina band called Arrogance. After performing in near obscurity with Arrogance for fourteen years, Dixon rose to prominence as a producer of such acts as R.E.M., the Smithereens, and Let’s Active. The partnership between Jones and Dixon yielded 1985’s Unsophisticated Time. People critic Ralph Novak gave the release his highest mark, writing that Dixon “provided her with a lot of infectious, synthesized rhythms; yet there are cello and trombone solos and a string quartet too.” Novak also had compliments for Jones, whom he described as “an exciting singer, with a rich, finely tuned voice and a sensibility (and sense of humor) to go with it.” Songwriters represented on the album included Elvis Costello, whose “The Element Within Her” is a particular standout, as well as Richard Barone, the dBs, and Dixon.
Jones and Dixon followed up Unsophisticated Time with the 1986 release Match Game. On this release Jones covered the David Bowie song “Soul Love,” Marshall Crenshaw’s “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” Free’s “Soon I Will Be Gone,” Dwight Twilley’s “Chance of a Lifetime,” and Liam Sternberg’s “Crusher,” as well as songs by Costello, Barone, and Dixon. Among the supporting musicians on the album were Crenshaw, Mitch Easter, Barone, T-Bone Burnett, Darlene Love, and former Ace and Squeeze vocalist Paul Carrack. Novak noted that Jones “achieves a remarkable sound that’s like a cross between a country ballad and something out of New Delhi.” Despite his enthusiasm for the recording, Novak graded it one notch beneath Jones’s debut.
By the time Jones’s third album was released she and Dixon were married, and they continued as recording and songwriting partners. Used Guitars, released in 1988, features such songs as “You Can’t Take Love for Granted” by Graham Parker, “The Real One” and “If I Can Love Somebody” by John Hiatt, “Ruby” by Janis Ian, another contribution from Marshall Crenshaw, and three collaborations between Dixon and Jones. Some feminist critics expressed concerns that perhaps Dixon was taking too much of an active role in Jones’s selection of material, and perhaps was dominating her career at the expense of Jones’s independence. Jones took the criticism in stride; joking that she had considered naming the album Good Golly Svengali.
Hoffs of the Bangles shares with Will
Harris (A.V. Club, October 2011): “I was up at Columbia on the A&R floor,
talking to David Kahne about songs, and he said, “God, I’ve got this crazy
song. It’s really cool - I don’t know what you’ll think of it, but . . .” So
now I’m curious. I say, “Okay, play it for me.” So he played me a demo of Marti
Jones singing “Walk Like An Egyptian.” Apparently Charlie Sexton had also covered
it. It was written by Liam Sternberg, who was from Ohio and had some
involvement with Chrissie Hynde from the early Ohio music days, the scene
there. Anyway, great guy. So the song had been covered a couple of times or
demoed a couple of times, but I heard the Marti Jones thing, and I was
immediately struck by how cool it was. She did a really great vocal on it. It
was very deadpan, very cool. I liked it. And I think the idea was that we were
thinking, y’know, the album had a certain flavor to it, but it might be nice to
have something with a very different kind of groove to it, a different
attitude, just to kind of make the album seem more well-rounded in a certain
way. I guess that’s what David was thinking. At any rate, the band decided, “Yes,
let’s go for it. Let’s go ahead and record it.” And we recorded it at the Sound
Used Guitars failed to find an audience, prompting Jones’s label, A&M, to drop her. For her fourth album she secured a contract with RCA. Of the eleven songs on the 1990 release, Any Kind of Lie, all but three are written by Jones and Dixon: Loudon Wainwright III’s “Old Friend,” Clive Gregson’s “Cliche,” and Don Dixon as sole writer on “Second Choice.” Robbins wrote that Dixon “loads the songs up with every time-tested trick in the pop-country-rock singer/songwriter manual, making for a carefully arranged record that tries to consolidate a wide range of successful stylistic referents.” People critic Andrew Abrahams granted the album his highest grade, describing it as “Lovers’ deceptions. Bitter memories. Cynical impressions of romance. Yes, love songs, songs of love lost and mourned, abound on Jones’s fourth record. The gifted singer-songwriter conjures a darkly romantic mood.”
Despite a generally positive critical reception, Any Kind of Lie also failed to find the audience it deserved, and it took Jones nearly six years to release another album.
In 1996 she released two albums on the Sugar Hill Records label, including a live recording, Live from Spirit Square, and the studio recording My Long-Haired Life. In 2002 she released My Tidy Doily Dream, which featured her collaboration with astroPuppies’ member Kelley Ryan, “Always.” Lucky Stars: New Lullabies for Old Souls, an album credited to the husband-and-wife duo of Marti Jones and Don Dixon, was made available for digital download in March 2008.
After 27 years of a musical relationship and a collective discography of over 18 records, Don Dixon and Marti Jones are finally releasing a record of duets. “We were surprised when we sat down and actually looked at the songs we’d recorded together prior to this… There weren’t that many.”
Living Stereo (2011) is a collection of ten songs that involve the interaction of two voices. “Dixon wrote most of the songs,” says Jones. “I’m very lucky to be married to someone who writes so well for the both of us. It takes the pressure off me to be a songwriter. I love what he writes, because he writes for the singer.”