LINDA RONSTADT doesn't have to prove anything to anyone these days. When the country-rocker first broke into the big time with her solo act, critics complained that her repertoire was too limited, that the secret of her appeal was not her voice but her beauty. Ronstadt is undeniably a beautiful woman, or at the very least sexy, and she has undoubtedly used her sex appeal as a selling point. But her latest album, Simple Dreams, lays to rest once and for all any remaining doubts about her ability as a singer. Ronstadt is at the top of the current, ever-shifting rock heap, and she fully deserves her number-one status. Simple Dreams lacks the knockout power of her two best albums, Prisoner in Disguise and Heart Like a Wheel, yet it displays a more mature talent. The songs are an effective, in not particularly memorable, mix of old rockers, country and new Southern-California-mellow tunes. Most important, they are all perfect for Ronstadt's shimmering voice.
The listener finds a good example in the opening cut on side one, a 1958 Buddy Holly number called "It's So Easy." Played in a straight-forward rhythm-and-blues style, the accent here, as on every other cut, is on Linda. She belts this one out with true style, growling and cooing over the notes in a fine evocation of the early days of rock. The selection is even more significant when compared to one of her early numbers, "Heat Wave," a 1963 hit by Martha Raye and the Shirelles. That song was a tremendous hit, and deservedly so, but it was actually a bit out of Ronstadt's range. When she realized the song was too high and too powerful for her, Ronstadt finally dropped it from her concert repertoire about a year ago. By contrast, the Holly song on Simple Dreams is just a little softer, just a little slower, and as a result it sounds more than a little better.
Two more oldies also receive excellent treatment on the album--a country ballad from Roy Orbison (one of Elvis's teenage idols) called "Blue Bayou," and the old Jagger-Richard standby, Tumbling Dice. The Stones version is, of course, the best, but it its interesting to hear it sung by a woman. In fact, this cut may be the best on the album. The remaining seven songs on the album (which total up to a mere 32 minutes of music - those record companies really bleed you dry) further demonstrate Ronstadt's recently-found maturity. They range from mediocre, like "Maybe I'm Right," to excellent, "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," a Warren Zevon song featuring strong, thoughtful phrasing and solid lyrics:
Yes, he really worked me over good
He was a credit to his gender
He put me through some changes, Lord
Sort of like a Waring blender.
The key point is that all the songs were selected with Ronstadt's abilities in mind. The arrangements, instrumentation--which features strong guitar playing by Waddy Wachtel and some acoustic guitar by Linda--and mixing all emphasize her talents to good effect.
Simple Dreams has more of a blues feeling than any other Ronstadt album. The mood is over-whelmingly downbeat, despite the occasional rock tunes. The lyrics, as in "Sorrow Lives Here," largely reflect the lonely-woman-of-the-world image that Ronstadt has always projected.
Sorrow lives here in my heart
It haunts me
When I sleep
I can't keep
The thought of you from my dreams...
The oft-burned-lover syndrome seems to haunt many of the female solo acts in the rock world today. Bonnie Raitt, probably the best of them all, fairly thrives on this image. So do Dolly Parton, who provides some nice background vocals on this album, and the majority of female country singers. This may be the result of sexism in the music world.
Women have never been fully accepted as rock stars--the image is a purely masculine one, as witnessed by the criticism levelled at Janis Joplin's femininity. What remains for women, and especially for women of Ronstadt's beauty and talent is a large but seemingly limited repertoire of blues-oriented music, running along the twin themes of loneliness and/or broken romances. Perhaps that is all that sells, and in the record business, as in any other major industry, sales are the key.
Simple Dreams will sell well indeed. Like most of Ronstadt's albums, it will probably go gold, giving further proof of her popular appeal. It is almost impossible not to like her, or her music; she has matured as an artist, and her work shows it. All of which, of course, assures her a permanent place in the insecure rock world, and a paid-off mortgage on her Malibu Beach retreat.
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