Little Linda Grows Up
Living in the U.S.A. Linda Ronstadt 1978, Asylum Records
WHEN SHE WAS 18 back in 1965, a dropout from the University of Arizona, Linda Ronstadt set out on the road for California, looking for the footlights and the glory of the rock world. But the beginning was a lean time; during those free-wheeling days of the mid-sixties with Bob Kimmel and Kenny Edwards as the group Stone Poneys, she was not exactly one of Capitol Records' biggest recording artists.
They managed a lone hit, "Different Drum" in 1967, but the group eventually split, leaving Ronstadt to fulfill the Capitol contract as a solo vocalist. Then the '60s turned to the '70s; and the dark-haired, wide-eyed, carefree spirit of the California music scene hooked up with producer Peter Asher and soon evolved into a sensational new female vocalist. Five platinum albums later, the innocent Arizona teenager has risen in stature to the top of the heap, taking over as rock's leading female vocalist.
She's 32 now but still loves to act like a kid, completing the image with her new Betty Boop hairdoo. Despite knee socks, hot pants and t-shirts, there's a maturity in her magnificent voice, a control that has been carefully developed during her days with Peter Asher. Hasten Down the Wind hinted at that sound, and Simple Dreams polished it even further. Ronstadt's newest release, Living in the U.S.A., showcases her versatnity and maintains the melodic mixture that has proven so successful in the past. The album is not her strongest to date, but it does reflect the enormous talent Linda Ronstadt possesses.
The disc includes the standard rocker, this time a Chuck Berry tune called "Back in the U.S.A." With guitarist Waddy Wachtel supplying the characteristic riffs that made Berry's mid-fifties music so popular, the track has become an AM/FM hit single, a sure-fire get-up-and-boogie rocker. But it lacks the power of "Tumbling Dice" or the throaty intensity of "Heat Wave." The song is thin throughout and doesn't hold its own among the other works on this album.
Drawing from a variety of sources, Ronstadt puts together a strong selection of tunes in the middle of her new album, starting with an Elvis Costello hit, "Alison." With background vocal help from Andrew Gold and David Sanborn's mysterious alto sax weaving through the chorus, the song suits Ronstadt's voice perfectly, alternately showing a soft, shallow tone and then a full, resonant alto swell.
The album's best ballad comes from the music of a Ronstadt favorite, J.D. Souther, whose songs have consistently strengthened her albums. This time she picks a slow love song, backed by a sweet pedal steel. "White Rhythm and Blues" ends side one with a sweet, sentimental tone, Ronstadt's voice enveloping the soft electric piano of Dan Grolnick, whose keyboard skills are heavily used in this album.
THE STANDOUT OF Ronstadt's latest, though is Little Feat pulser, almost reminiscent of "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me." Carried along by Russ Kunkel's sure-handed, driving drum beat and a steady Kenny Edwards bass line, Ronstadt displays the power of her sharp, brassy voice in a heavily throaty verse that rises to an upbeat, bold chorus. The bright, '70s rocker contrasts strongly to "Oooh Baby Baby," a mellow Smokey Robinson tune in which Ronstadt uses two male backup vocalists who add a sweet falsetto giving the song a Motown-like sound. The song works quite well; Ronstadt's voice makes her version of the song just different enough from the original.
Warren Zevon's "Mohammed's Radio," the song Ronstadt told concert audiences this summer was her favorite on the album, works in as another in the long tradition of slow Ronstadt ballads that have been so well received in the past. The song is deliberate and forceful, pushing along Zevon's angry lyrics.
But there are disappointments on the album, especially a remake of the Elvis Presley classic "Love Me Tender." Ronstadt's stab at the tune is too polished, too slick to work well. She obliterated Presley's rough edges and raw power. "Blowing Away," a lethargic, mournful ballad in which producer-manager Asher sings background, dies before it starts, lacking the poignancy that makes Ronstadt's slowest songs click. A 1934 Oscar Hammerstein song, "When I Grow Too Old to Dream," despite a pretty electric piano line, also falls short. Ronstadt plays with a cutesy, childlike voice which makes the song sound almost like a nursery rhyme set to music.
Perhaps Ronstadt's strength, because of the power her voice can deliver, lies in the driving rockers. She is sweet in her quietest moments, but even her best slow ballads, like "Desperado" and "Blue Bayou" derive their beauty from the brassy crescendoes which bolster the tunes. On Living in the U.S.A., a song like "Just One Look," one of the weaker compositions before Ronstadt's touches, comes off fairly well because it gives Ronstadt a chance to belt out the lyrics. And that energetic vocal thrust, hardly what you'd expect from a shy, playful, innocent-looking singer who stands on stage clutching the microphone, rarely strutting about, even on the boldest tunes, gives Linda Ronstadt the power to captivate an audience. In it's February 1977 cover story on Ronstadt, Time called that vocal power "torchy rock." Well, you can choose your own descriptive term; whatever you want to call it, it's the essence of Ronstadt's appeal and the reason why she'll remain atop the rock world for years to come.