|Prisoner in Disguise- Linda Ronstadt|
|"Linda Ronstadt: Extraordinary Collaboration"|
For a long time now, I've been trying to pretend that Linda Ronstadt doesn't exist- for frankly extra-musical reasons, you understand. For one thing, I've never been able to comprehend the lustful frenzy she induces in so many of my male friends (and in so many members of her audiences). You've seen one chin, you've seen 'em both, has been my thinking, and I much prefer Nico as a pop sex object. For another, Linda insists on hanging out with, and, worse, singing the songs of J. D. Souther, who could well be the most mediocre songwriter in America today. Finally, she has always struck me as a crybaby. Sure, in my heart of hearts I go all warm and runny when she sings Love Has No Pride, but I'm much too cynical to admit that publicly, and she's limited herself pretty much to songs that express that same basic sentiment. Despite a lovely voice, her emotional range just isn't that broad, and her success, I suspect, is more a result of her lucking out on the uniform mediocrity of the competition than anything else.linda ronstadt linda ronstadt linda ronstadt linda ronstadt linda ronstadt linda ronstadt linda ronstadt linda ronstadt
But. . . . On her last album, amidst the usual L.A. session men who generally provide the formula back-ups that have also always annoyed me about her work, she hooked up with a heretofore unknown fellow named Andrew Gold (his is the spectacular guitar playing that graced her hit version of When Will I Be Loved) who was obviously functioning as her musical director, and the collaboration was at times extraordinary. I would venture to say that Mr. Gold has assimilated the influence of the Beatles better than any other rock musician now before the public, British or American, and as a result "Heart Like a Wheel" was the first Ronstadt album that sounded like the work of people who knew how to make records, as opposed to just music. (There is a difference, you see, and unfortunately most of the country rockers Linda hangs out with don't understand that.)
Anyway, her new one, "Prisoner in Disguise," continues the collaboration, and though it's got the usual problems (weak song selection, hackneyed back-ups), they are wonderfully mitigated whenever Andrew is center stage. I refer you to the album's major success, an absolutely incredible version of Jimmy Cliff's great Many Rivers to Cross. Linda sings it nicely enough (though I still prefer Jimmy, who doesn't have the low-register problems she does), but Gold's guitar solo is stunning- relentlessly logical the way some of George Harrison's were before he picked up the slide exclusively- and it is followed by some of the most imaginative and economically placed background vocals (Gold's arrangements) I've heard since, um, "Abbey Road," perhaps. Almost as good is Heatwave, on which he does the one-man-band routine with spectacular results. This song is so overly familiar (there was a time when it was the must-do break tune for most bar bands) that it would seem impossible to breathe new life into it, let alone temporarily erase memories of the original, but with another magnificent guitar break and some really fine singing, these folks almost do it.
And I shouldn't slight Linda, of course. On Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You, the album's other high point, her vocal (it is, wisely, the focus of the performance in this case) is absolutely gorgeous, full-bodied and intense in a way that made me think of Smokey Robinson's best moments (odd, because she also tackles his Tracks of My Tears, and it defeats her).
The rest of the album is nothing much, the standard Hollywood c-&-w stuff that's been Linda's stock in trade from the beginning. There's a new Neil Young song that may or may not work when Neil gets around to doing it, but it strikes these ears as being a throwaway. There's also a Lowell George/Little Feat rocker, similarly forgettable; James Taylor's banal-beyond-belief Hey Mister That's Me Up on the Jukebox (what madness is it that makes otherwise intelligent people continue to record this tune?); and finally and most fatally, there are two songs by (you guessed it) J. D. Souther, utterly rotten, and rendered unlistenable in any case by the presence of their composer on guitar and harmony vocals.
All this has probably sounded a little sour, so let me end on a positive note. First of all, the good cuts here are so good that- for me, anyway- they more than justify the album's purchase. (That's for all you Eagles fans out there who, I've learned, usually go for Ms. Ronstadt as well.) Second- and this is for you, Linda- since you're obviously so good at singing great standard rock, r-&-b, and country songs, and since your friend Andrew is such an outstanding arranger of same, why don't the two of you do a "Pin-Ups" next time out? There are one hundred and three old songs I'd rather hear you singing than the bulk of what's on "Prisoner in Disguise." I bet you know them all, and a few that haven't occurred to me yet as well. Think about it.