Monday, July 8, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1278: Linda Ronstadt

After almost five days of being a bachelor, Sheila returned today from a solo vacation in Eastern Canada. I’m bagged after a hard day of work and Sheila is jet-lagged (she’s taking a nap as I write this) but it feels great to have her home. In about an hour I’m going to gently wake her and then, as Leonard Cohen would say, we’re going to “get lost in that hopeless little screen.”

But first, I’m going to write this review. This one features the second straight album from 1977.

Disc 1278 is… Simple Dreams
Artist: Linda Ronstadt

Year of Release: 1977

What’s up with the Cover? Linda puts her face on and, presumably at some point thereafter, her clothes. This cover would be a lot better if that annoying “Prix Special Price” graphic wasn’t there. No that is not a sticker, it is a permanent marring of what is an otherwise very sexy, very sultry album cover.

How I Came to Know It: Linda Ronstadt was a mainstay on AM radio when I was a kid, but I had never previously owned any of her albums. Then about a month ago I decided to check out her discography and see if anything appealed. Four albums did, and “Simple Dreams” was the first one I found that made the shortlist.

How It Stacks Up:  I plan to eventually have four Linda Ronstadt albums, but for now this is the only one, so it can’t really stack up.

Ratings: 4 stars

Modern audiences might be inclined to dismiss Linda Ronstadt as just another cover singer, not realizing the incredible talent that is required to take 10 songs written by, and for, strangers and then make every one of them indelibly your own. Ronstadt had already proven her ability to do it seven times, but her eighth record, - “Simple Dreams” – is her best work yet.

It all starts with that voice: laden with sweetness or hurt depending on the demands of the song, Ronstadt has a rare talent that makes you hang on every word. Artists like Emmylou Harris have a quaver that makes your hair stand up on edge, and Brandi Carlile has a wild power that threatens to blow you over but Ronstadt’s voice is all about purity. Many singers with perfect pitch like this can end up sounding detached, but Ronstadt sells every word with vulnerable emotion.

She also demonstrates an ability to adapt to any style and never sound false or strained. “Simple Dreams” features songs that could appear on pop, easy listening, down-home country or hard rock records. At one point she gently sings an acoustic folk song (“Maybe I’m Right”) and then launches straight into the ragged rock of the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice.” She converts each of them to her own style just enough that they don’t sound awkward beside one another, but not so much that they lose their spirit. She’s the centerpiece of the record, and the songs rotate around her.

It doesn’t hurt that “Simple Dreams” has such a wonderfully curated collection of songs for Ronstadt to show off with. When she’s not showing up the Rolling Stones, she covers Buddy Holly (“It’s So Easy) and Roy Orbison (“Blue Bayou”). “Blue Bayou” is a masterpiece of arrangement and vocal performance. Starting slow with a single bass guitar riff and Ronstadt singing a meandering reverie. As other instruments join her voice swells up into the sweet centre of her range. At the end she soars into a big beautiful note that hangs in the air like a moon over water.

My favourite thing about “Simple Dreams” are Ronstadt’s covers of  Warren Zevon songs. Ronstadt titled her previous album “Hasten Down the Wind” after her first cover of his work. On “Simple Things” she doubles down with two songs, “Carmelita” and “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” is such a rousing cover and so successful that when I heard Zevon’s version my first thought was “what’s this? A Linda Ronstadt cover?” I still like his original, but once you hear the cover, Linda Ronstad’s vocals are always floating in the back of your mind.

Carmelita” is a less well-known, but equally brilliant track. The song is about a down-and-out heroin addict, penniless and pining for his lover in between trying to score. It’s hard to imagine a voice so sweet telling a story so sad, but hearing that voice drop lines like:

Carmelita, hold me tighter, I think I’m sinkin’ down.
And I’m all strung out on heroin/on the outskirts of town

Delivers its own brand of heartache; sweet, vulnerable and quietly tragic.

The production on “Simple Dreams” at times felt a touch too on point, but if you don’t mind the purity of studio sound (which I don’t) this won’t irk you overmuch. Besides, all that studio talent means there is plenty of brilliant playing on the record, and even a few notable guest vocals along the way (Don Henley and Dolly Parton). However great players and famous singers alike take a back seat to the star of this record; Linda Ronstadt in full throat, making every song her own.

Best tracks: It’s So Easy, Carmelita, Blue Bayou, Poor Poor Pitiful Me, Tumbling Dice

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