|A Versatile Artist's Return|
|by Stephen Holden|
At a time when pop music has splintered into a mosaic of subgenres, Linda Ronstadt is an increasingly rare exponent of a consensus pop sensibility. In the 1970's she was one of the first singers to propose an updated canon of standards that aligns the best of Motown, rock, Nashville and folk with the pre-rock music popularized by Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Over the last decade, she brought Mexican and Cuban music into the fold.
Even when Ms. Ronstadt is working in areas that don't suit her flowing, country-folk style, her albums stand as ambitious musical term papers in which she challenges her own limitations to enlarge that consensus. And her beautiful voice, eternally perky and eternally heartbroken, stamps everything she sings with the same California-shined signature.
"Winter Light" (Elektra 61545-2), Ms. Ronstadt's first English-language album in four years, continues the consensus-building process with a characteristic mixture of intelligence, musicality, and attraction to the sad and the wistful. Lacking the sweep and grandeur of her 1989 masterpiece, "Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind," the new album wears a heavy aura of 1960's highschool nostalgia. The finest cut, "Oh No, Not My Baby," is a spunky remake of a Carole King-Gerry Goffin gem that was a medium-sized hit for Maxine Brown in 1964. It is all about a girl who refuses to believe the rumors that her boyfriend is cheating and is rewarded for her faith with a ring.
Two Burt Bacharach-Hal David classics for Dionne Warwick, "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," are given bright extroverted readings. And "It's Too Soon to Know," the Orioles' seminal 1948 rhythmand-blues hit, is revived in a modified doo-wop style.
Ms. Ronstadt also continues her longtime championing of favorite songwriters. From the Canadian folk duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle, there is the sparkling "Heartbeats Accelerating," which spins along on what sounds like an electronic calliope. From Jimmy Webb, who wrote four songs on "Cry Like a Rainstorm," come "Do What You Gotta Do" (a minor hit for Nina Simone in 1968), and the more recent "You Can't Treat the Wrong Man Right."
The album also takes tangents into country and new-age music. "A River For Him," a sad-hearted waltz by Emmylou Harris, is juxtaposed with "Adonde Voy," a lighter Spanish-language waltz, by the Mexican-American singer and songwriter Tish Hinojosa. The pairing neatly illustrates the melodic kinship between American country and Mexican folk-pop.
"Winter Light's" title song, which was featured in Agnieszka Holland's film "The Secret Garden," is a tone poem for voices and keyboard that inches toward the new-age dreaminess of the Irish singer and songwriter Enya. It shares a similarly ethereal mood with "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)," a silk-andchiffon remake of a song from the Beach Boys' 1965 album, "Pet Sounds."
Much of the appeal of Ms. Ronstadt's excavations comes from the obvious nostalgic fervor she brings to them. A part of her seems really to want to be back in high school riding the emotional rollercoaster of teenage love. Another equally strong part of her is a grownup neoclassicist with an historian's interest in the past. The arrangements for the Brown, Warwick and Beach Boys songs take the basic outlines of the original records and scrub and polish them into gleaming, museum-ready artifacts.
Although it is still not entirely clear whether vintage hit records can be remade and certified as classic in the manner of Ella Fitzgerald interpreting Cole Porter, Ms. Ronstadt makes as strong a case as any contemporary singer that it is a logical and even a necessary task. The pop music market is so overrun with trash that anyone with the dedication to extract the durable from the disposable deserves encouragement.
Ms. Ronstadt's instincts are hardly infallible. On "Winter Light," the two Webb songs are of borderline quality. And the album includes nothing as memorable as her duets with Aaron Neville on "Cry Like a Rainstorm." Yet it is still an appealing record, intelligently chosen, tastefully arranged, and beautifully sung by an all-American voice.