Saturday, October 22, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1594: Linda Ronstadt

For the second straight review I find myself in love with an artist’s voice, but not always with the songs she chooses to sing with it.

Disc 1594 is…. Living in the USA

Artist: Linda Ronstadt

Year of Release: 1978

What’s up with the Cover?  Caught in the Crushing Hallway Trap, Linda desperately tries to hold the walls back. Our heroine is doubly disadvantaged in her struggle: first because it is hard to get good leverage on roller skates, and second because that 1978 perm job can really sap a girl’s confidence.

How I Came To Know It: This was just me recently giving Ronstadt’s discography an even deeper dive, and finding a few more gems in the process.

How It Stacks Up: My ever-growing Linda Ronstadt collection is now at six records (and I’m hunting for two more). Unfortunately, one of these has to be last, and “Living in the USA” is it. #6.

Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

Linda Ronstadt has one of those voices so sublime she could sing any song in any style. Of course, that doesn’t mean she should. “Living in the USA” is a bit of both experiences – a few gems, and some other songs that, for all their technical excellence, feel like square pegs in round holes.

The record begins with one of the latter, with her covering Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA”. Can she sing it? Absolutely? Does she have a better voice than ole’ Chuck? You bet she does. But that doesn’t mean this song suits her vibe, and I found it a bit awkward. Similarly “Just One Look” feels a bit stilted, although I think it is just that I’m thoroughly done with that song: a weary fact well outside of Linda Ronstadt’s control.

At other times, Ronstadt falls into the old trap many great vocalists do, which is that you can tell she is very conscious of the fact that she is SINGING. You’ll see this a lot on singing competition programs, where having a great vocal is put in front of making the song emote. On “Living in the USA” we have a few such culprits, the worst being the old thirties classic “When I Grow Too Old to Dream” which ends with a powerhouse, “look at me” moment that felt like a pageant performance. And on “Ooh Baby Baby” she almost puts Smokey Robinson to shame with that high “ooh-ooh-ooh” hook, but for all its perfection, it just didn’t resonate with me. It didn’t help that the song was suffused with neo-eighties saxophone noodles.

Weirdly the saxophone flourishes didn’t bother me much at all on her cover of Elvis Costello’s “Alison”. Here they replace the guitar licks of the original, which is not the way I would have gone if I’d been in the studio. That said, any replacement of Costello’s affected warble with the artistry of Linda Ronstadt’s vocals is a welcome upgrade. Here, Ronstadt gives one of her best performances on the record, mixing that down to earth storyteller vibe she possesses, with the sweet power of her tone.

Also great is her cover of Warren Zevon’s “Mohammed’s Radio”. Something about covering Zevon makes Linda Ronstadt come alive. She just gets his songwriting, and this is one of her best. I could listen to Linda Ronstadt belt out this tune every day until I die and never tire of it. It is sheer brilliance.

My last favourite was also a cover, but this time it was a song I’d never heard before. Near the end of the record, we are treated to a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “Blowing Away” (well, Eric Kaz wrote it, but you know what I mean). Like “When I Get Too Old to Dream” this song is a master class vocal performance, but here Ronstadt pours pure emotion into the performance. When that first step-down occurs in the melody, and Ronstadt sings “Love is blind, and it cannot find me” it will break your heart.

Despite some other tunes that are either poor matches for Linda Ronstadt’s vibe, or just feel like she’s trying too hard, the greatness of a few songs ended up being enough for me to keep this record in my collection.

Best tracks: Alison, Mohammed’s Radio, Blowing Away

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