Linda Ronstadt has run through three different producers with her last three albums, and it's easy to see why she wears them out so fast. Of the three, not one of them has had much luck with the considerable job of imposing any direction or discipline on Linda's seemingly boundless raw energy. She has yet to find someone who can shape up a whole album to match the best of her individual performances on isolated cuts.
Hand Sown... Home Grown was the roughest, loudest, loosest and most striking of Linda's solo efforts, and it comes closest to conveying what happens when she and her tambourine get to wailing out a live show. Silk Purse was mostly country with only a slight touch ("Will You love Me Tomorrow") of mainstream pop; it had a few moments of erratic brilliance that may well be the best things she's done so far ("Long, Long Time," "Mental Revenge"). Like its predecessor, it was uneven but made up for weak moments with the passion and energy that give Linda driving force in all her best moments.
This time she and her new producer, John Boylan, have evidently decided to tone things down some, and so the new repertoire empahasizes "Long, Long Time"-style ballads at the expense of the gutsier stuff she does so well. But what made "Long, Long Time" such a perfect song for Linda had very little to do with its slowed-down tempo or ballad style, but rather with the song's sense of the quiet, soulful passion she knows so well how to convey. When Linda sings the kind of material that shows up her tremendous emotional power, she can always be devastating - but when she tackles more remote and thoughtful songs, the energy is lost and the end-product curiously lifeless.
Neil Young's "Birds" and Liv Taylor's "In My Reply" are perfect illustrations of the kind of material that causes her problems; they're both heavily dependent on verbal tricks and nuances, but Linda's way of dealing with lyrical subtlety is simply to gloss over it as sweetly as she can. Her versions are fluid and melodic and always nice to listen to, but the meaning is gone. Jackson Browne's lovely "Rock Me On The Water," the album's opening cut, is lyrically dense enough to have led to the same problem but it has a strong gospel side for her to latch onto, and she catches the spirit of it well enough to do a beautiful job.
Linda has always done best with either strictly country songs or love-song soliloquies, and when it comes to songs that combine both styles she can even be best-and-a-half. The other standout moments of the album are her versions of "Crazy Arms" and Eric Andersen's "Faithful," each of which sounds like she both feels and understands it. "I Fall to Pieces" has much of the same kind of strength, but "I Won't Be Hangin' Round," "Ramblin' Round," and "I Still Miss Someone" come through slow and plain enough to get bogged down. The only really uptempo cut here is Linda's "Rescue Me," which sounds like it's going to be great until you hear it. But the vocal is all at one fever pitch, sheer guts and nothing else, and the backup is live and on the sloppy side; a studio production would have worked better. Too bad, because it's basically the kind of thing she could have done very well with.
All of Linda's records have been both solid and enjoyable, but no single one of them prepares you for the knockout she can be in live performance. Her full talent brings together so many powerful elements that it seems to be almost impossible for any recording to capture her as a whole. The side of her that emerges here may be slower, deeper, and more soulful than what she's done before, but without the raw power that should be there to give it balance, it is just incomplete.
- JANET MASLIN