Living In The U.S.A.-|
Linda Ronstadt (Asylum)
by Bruce Malamut
Why is Linda Ronstadt like General Motors? Because in this era of less-is-more, in this year of the smaller car, the 1978 Ronstadt has similarly gone streamlined. Not only did she drop some babyfat - those rollerskating leg shots show off more than her orange kneepads- but her choice of material expresses a new emotional athleticism which feels downright invigorating.
Don't underestimate the vibe she lays down for the whole album with her full-bodied alto belting out the opening line, "Oh well, I feel so good today!" With every band from Auckland to Duluth doing "Back in the U.S.A.," any album introduced by yet another cover of this Chuck Berry ritual puts its ass right out on the line. Behind remarkable assists from her veteran bassist Kenny Edwards' propulsive backbeat and pianist Don Grolnick's showstealing bebop, Linda remolds this ancient rocker into one of the wickedest covers of a Berry tune you'll probably ever hear.
Unlike her peers, Ronstadt doesn't write, and her albums for this reason cannot be viewed as psychological litmus tests. This fact consistently seems to evade her critics who cruelly interpret all these martyred ditties as hers. The reason's that her art is her careful selection of other writer's emotions. Linda's reputation for choosing self-deprecating country tunes is reknown. Those sobbing pleas for some unattainable love grail have implied the portrait of the lonesome little melancholic, whom Linda's detractors have criticized as appearing unbearably jive. Although this picture is standard for forlorn C&W balladeers, it's one thing to see Dolly Parton (whose physically presence is so wonderfully jive) acting out this silly melodrama, but quite another to dig some jet-set beauty from Malibu trying to get away with it. Whether by design or mistake, Warren Zevon pointed out this irony with his "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" written for Ronstadt's Simple Dreams album. Linda couldn't even kill herself right.
Which is why the new album comes as such a pleasant surprise. Our rodeo sweetheart's dropping her cover and the sad stuff is becoming more bitter than melancholy. On Eric Kaz' plaintive "Blowing Away," Ronstadt grows up. "My life has lost its mystery/love is blind and it cannot find me . . . and I'm going down for the last time." Not only has she sold her mortgage on sugar mountain, but it's even gone a step further into the consideration of misogamy which was at the core of last year's Simple Dreams. For better or worse, this is survival; Linda gets tough. On J.D. Souther's "White Rhythm & Blues," the river runs as deep as any Emmylou Harris has fathomed. Behind some moving chord changes and glistening pedal work from Dan Dugmore, J.D. Souther's "White Rhythm & Blues" is about the cumulative effects of disillusionment and, although the singer intimates it can hurt like hell, her outward reaction is stoic. "Would you think that somebody like me/might have hurt much more than it shows/just send me black roses/white rhythm and blues." If self-awareness is a sign of strength, then Ronstadt's as much as calling her own past self-pitying bluff. Apparently, she's become familiar with "somebody like me."
Admittedly, these could be Souther and Kaz' respective changes and have nothing to do with the true Linda. If so, then it's still her best album because the throwaways (filler) are a superior selection to any before. There are covers of Elvis Costello's twisted love letter, "Alison (My Aim Is True)," Smokey Robinson's monolithic "Ooh Baby Baby" (both with golden alto work from Dave Sanborn) and a jazzed-out rendition of Little Feat's surrealist ballad, "All That You Dream" (replete with warped synthesizer break). Top on the list is Warren Zevon's traditionally mock-mythic dirge, "Mohammed's Radio," in which Godot turns out to be rock & roll and Mohammed's radio is the grail. And even though there's some quotient of jackflap here wimping out like Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender" and Oscar Hammerstein's "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" (1934), it can be taken in stride because it's not that terrible. Which pretty much sums up the problem with Linda's angriest critics- they can't get beyond the material (which she didn't write anyway) long enough to appreciate that Ronstadt's got one of the most powerful voices ever to hit rock & roll. Stop asking her to be an artist for two seconds and enjoy.