An unhealthy portion of the attention devoted to Linda Ronstadt over the
years has dealt with her supposed physical attributes at the expense of her
music. Well the time has come to set the record straight once and for all: Linda
Ronstadt ain't that hot-looking. But she can sing just fine.
Most of this album supports the latter contention. Her voice has neither an
impressively expansive range nor any startling expressiveness; what it does have
is an entrapping uncertainty that somehow pulls out of you the desire to believe
what she's singing. Such a quality obviously comes across on ballads, but it
also shows when she decides to cut loose. Even at the height of her power you
still get the feeling that she's capable of losing her footing at any moment and
her tightrope walk contributes to her ability to hold your attention. Linda
Ronstadt is an involving singer above all, and her several excellent
performances on Prisoner In Disguise should maintain the level of
involvement she achieved with Heart Like A Wheel.
Still, this record makes me uneasy. One reason that it took Linda so long to
finally break through was that pop audiences didn't really care to know about
Country Linda Ronstadt. And, despite her platinum bust-out of last year, they
still don't. "You're No Good" was swallowed whole because it was a pop record.
And, "When Will I Be Loved," though it came from a basically country direction,
still relied on a rock & roll staple...strong electric rhythm guitar...to
put it over the top. That's why "Love Is A Rose," a Neil Young song chosen as
the first single off this new LP, flopped. Instead of that electric rhythm we
get a fiddle, and as good as the song is, if AM audiences had an affinity for
fiddle music that extended beyond the occasional John Denver novelty, then
artists like Emmylou Harris would be huge stars instead of merely predictions.
So DJs flipped "Rose" and found an updated "Heat Wave" (part of her live show
for years), which looks like it could be as big as the two hits off her previous
album. It's a good version which actually sounds better over a car radio than on
your turntable at home) reconfirming the timelessness of Motown, but it presents
a disconcerting note.
Not being a writer, Linda's success has been as much with the choice of her
material as with its execution. Her last three hits (if you count "Heat Wave")
have all been remakes of songs that had previously achieved some measure of
popularity. The only other surefire single possibility on the album, "Tracks Of
My Tears," continues the chain. All of which makes Linda Ronstadt a revivalist
to a large segment of her audience (the newcomers) and, however excellently she
fills the role, the fact remains that there's much more to Linda Ronstadt than
that label accounts for. (It should be added, though, that Peter Asher's
production, while consistently superior, is superb on these tracks; he's got the
soul of a rock & roller, something his work with James Taylor and Linda's
hasn't always allowed to shine.)
To put herself in focus across the board, Linda needs more material worthy of
her consideration by contemporary writers, and this is where Prisoner In
Disguise falls down. She gives, for example, an inspired reading of a piece
of material, Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," that's merely adequate;
ditto for James Taylor's "Hey Mister That's Me Up On The Jukebox." These aren't
bad songs; they just don't have the impact necessary to balance the "Heat Wave"
element of her presentation. So what we're left with is an album that, although
solid, treads water. A pattern emerges here...songs by Lowell George, J.D.
Souther, James Taylor, Anna McGarrigle and a couple of covers of classic
pop/r&b tunes...and it's only a matter of time before a pattern
becomes a formula, and a formula becomes tedium.
When she begins to scout material again, may we suggest: John Fogerty's,
"Almost Saturday Night", Jimmy Webb's, "Just This One Time", or "It's A Sin",
Christine McVie's "Come A Little Bit Closer", Bob Seger's "Beautiful Loser", Tim
Moore's "Charmer" or "I Can Almost See The Light," Fred Tackett's "Dance To
The Radio", or Patti Dahistrom's "Louisiana." Those came straight off the top of
my head; you probably have lists of your own. So why don't you write to Linda,
c/o Asylum Records, and tell her what songs you'd like to hear her sing.
I'm sure she'd appreciate the input.