Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Linda Ronstadt Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Hand Sown … Hand Grown (1969, Capitol)

C +

This oft-forgotten disc marks Ronstadt’s official solo debut after several years of fronting The Stone Poneys, who nearly cracked the Top Ten in early 1968 with the song “Different Drum,” penned by the Monkees’ Mike Nesmith. Interestingly enough, both of her Stone Poneys bandmates – Kenny Edwards and Bob Kimmel – pop up as players on the disc, Edwards even penning the track “The Long Way Around,” but that’s where the comparisons end, as Ronstadt moves away from the folk sound of her former group (though she has included a pair of Dylan covers, including an excellent reading of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” and an equally strong Fred Neil cover in “The Dolphins”) and delves heavily into more country-oriented territory, even covering such country standards as “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” (popularized by Waylon Jennings and here retitled “Only Mama …”) and John D. Loudermilk’s underrated “Break My Mind.” It’s all quite good, but it’s simply just that – good – and doesn’t even begin to hint at the versatility that she would demonstrate to greater effect on her later records and build her name on in the late ‘70s.

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Silk Purse (1970, Capitol)

B –

More traditionalist in its brand of country and ever-so-slightly superior to the debut disc, it’s still far from perfect – some of the cover choices are just a tad too familiar, namely the Goffin-King standard “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and the Dale and Grace chart-topper “I’m Leaving It All Up to You,” and Linda has yet to fully find her voice as an artist, so it’s not as revealing as the next record would be – but its best moments, including “Lovesick Blues” (popularized by Hank Williams), “Nobody’s,”  Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge,” and “He Darked the Sun” (penned by the Byrds’ Gene Clark and future Eagle Bernie Leadon) have more personality than the debut, and the disc also one-ups its predecessor by including a top-drawer single – and Ronstadt’s first major solo hit – in the dramatic ballad “Long, Long Time.”  

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Linda Ronstadt (1972, Capitol)

B +   

Unlike Silk Purse, there are no hit singles here to lure in the more casual fan, nor is there any one particular knockout cut, but this self-titled affair is arguably a stronger and more cohesive disc from start to finish than its predecessor all the same (this in spite of not only including several live cuts amongst the studio sides but also mixing country covers alongside rock covers), boasting excellent readings of such strong songs as Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me on the Water,” Neil Young’s “Birds,” country star Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” and  Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone,” and arguably the most underrated of her first four albums. It’s also one of Ronstadt’s more historically significant discs, not merely because it marks the point where she first truly started to branch out into rock but also because it extensively features all four original members of the soon-to-be-formed Eagles (Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner), who would – with Ronstadt’s blessing – go off on their own to become one of the biggest classic-rock bands of all-time. It might not be nearly as well-known a disc as Silk Purse, but this disc boasts considerably more personality and is where the Linda Ronstadt that became a pop/rock mega-star with Heart Like a Wheel and Simple Dreams truly first took root.

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Don’t Cry Now (1972, Asylum)

B –  

Shifting labels from Capitol to David Geffen’s then-newly-formed Asylum Records (already home at this point to both Jackson Browne and the Eagles), Ronstadt jettisons just a little too much of her newfound personality here, downplaying the more traditionalist country influences that shared space alongside the rock covers on this disc’s self-titled predecessor, and employing three different producers here: John Boylan (who helmed the last record), Ronstadt’s then-boyfriend J.D. Souther (later to briefly find solo stardom in the late ‘70s with the Roy Orbison-like “You’re Only Lonely” but perhaps better known as James Taylor’s duet partner on “Her Town Too” and the co-writer of such Eagles hits as “Best of My Love,” “Heartache Tonight” and “New Kid in Town”), and former Peter & Gordon member Peter Asher (who’d already built a huge name for himself as an A&R man and producer by discovering and producing a string of multi-platinum albums for James Taylor.) Consequently, the disc is a bit less charming, but it’s still at least as well-crafted as Silk Purse, and its first half is fairly rock-solid – her version of “Desperado” is no substitute for the Eagles original, but her cover of the standard “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” (popularized by the folk group The Springfields) is a knockout, as is her reading of the Eric Kaz-Libby Titus composition “Love Has No Pride,” which is every bit as passionate as Bonnie Raitt’s recording of the song.

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Heart Like a Wheel (1974, Capitol)

A +

Easily her greatest moment as an artist, Heart Like a Wheel was – ironically enough – intended to make good on an outstanding contractual requirement with her former label, who she still owed an album. Not only did Capitol get something more than just a half-hearted effort, but the record would end up catapulting Ronstadt into the pop/rock elite at long last, becoming her biggest-seller to date by far, topping the pop and country charts alike and garnering four Grammy nods, including an Album of the Year nomination. It’s true that Ronstadt sounds more fully invested here as a vocalist than she did on any of her previous discs, but the artistic success of the disc is about so much more than just that. It’s about Ronstadt’s focused decision to bring back the masterful Peter Asher from Don’t Cry Now and make him her full-time producer. It’s the utilization of the wildly gifted multi-instrumentalist (and future solo star) Andrew Gold as co-arranger, guitarist, and drummer on the album’s most lively moments, such as the rollicking rendition of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved,” which is even more fun than Phil and Don’s original. But, most importantly, it’s about the excellent choice of material. “Willin’” can’t hold a candle to the Little Feat version, but Ronstadt acquits herself well on covers of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You,” Paul Anka’s “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” and James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes.” But the album is never more tasteful and intriguing than when Ronstadt tackles less familiar material, such as Paul Craft’s “Keep Me from Blowing Away,” the Anna McGarrigle-penned title track, and, best of all, the Betty Everett obscurity “You’re No Good,” which, in the hands of Ronstadt, Gold, and Asher, is radically transformed here into a slithery, haunting hybrid of rock and R&B with a subtly atmospheric instrumental track that alone is worth the price of admission. This disc is a must-own for any fans of ‘70s pop.

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Prisoner in Disguise (1975, Asylum)

A –

Neither quite as masterful as Heart Like a Wheel nor as disappointing as it’s sometimes made out to be by critics, Prisoner in Disguise suffers merely from trying just a bit too hard to replicate the artistic success of its predecessor, right down to including further songs from James Taylor (“Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox”), Litle Feat (“Roll ‘um Easy,”) J.D. Souther (“Silver Blue” and the title cut) and Anna McGarrigle (“You Tell Me That I’m Falling Down”). But, though that might make the disc seem a tad too safe, Ronstadt does take chances elsewhere (to the point of even covering Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” which she can’t quite do justice, but give her points for even daring to go there), and she does deliver with such winning cuts as “The Sweetest Gift” (featuring Emmylou Harris on harmonies and the great David Grisman on mandolin), Neil Young’s “Love Is a Rose,” Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” (nearly two full decades before Whitney Houston would score the biggest hit of her career with the same song), and, surprisingly enough, a pair of Motown covers, the Miracles’ “Tracks of My Tears” and a slick-yet-great-fun cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” featuring the returning Andrew Gold playing every instrument but the bass.

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Hasten Down the Wind (1976, Asylum)

A –

Her third platinum album in a row, Hasten Down the Wind is neither as lighthearted as either of the two previous discs nor quite as country-oriented (although she does throw a bone to her country audience by covering the Willie Nelson-penned Patsy Cline classic “Crazy” and doing an excellent job with the song, too), but it’s a more daring disc than Prisoner in Disguise and doesn’t feel nearly as filler-heavy, even if it lacks a single even half as fun as “Heat Wave” was, making it a bit of a trade-off and ultimately rendering both albums equally appealing. There are early signs of Ronstadt’s late-career musical adventurousness in the Spanish cut “Lo Siento Mi Vida,” and there’s also a rare Ronstadt original (co-written with Gold) in the surprisingly good “Try Me Again.” The faithful cover of the Crickets’ “That’ll Be the Day” isn’t nearly as inventive as her remakes of “You’re No Good” or “When Will I Be Loved,” but it’s still fairly fun. But the reason you’ll most want to keep coming back to the disc is the passionate performances of songs by such then-little-known talents as Warren Zevon – who penned the title cut – and Karla Bonoff, whose songs “Lose Again” and “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me” would sadly both miss the Top 40 altogether but are the two best tracks here.

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Simple Dreams (1977, Asylum)

A

Perhaps it was the failure of Hasten Down the Wind to yield any Top Ten singles that prompted the change, but Simple Dreams is noticeably a great deal more playful and lighthearted than its immediate predecessor. For some listeners, that might make the album seem a bit more disposable, but for just as many others, this disc should be an incredibly fun ride. Ronstadt makes the Crickets’ obscurity “It’s So Easy” all her own and would deservedly have a Top Five hit with the  song, while she also remarkably turns in a dramatic performance to rival the great Roy Orbison’s on a warm, breathtakingly pretty rendition of his “Blue Bayou.” [Ronstadt’s rendition would both reach the Top Three and garner a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.]  Dolly Parton pops up to provide harmonies on the standard “I Never Will Marry,” while Linda also returns to the songbook of the underrated Eric Kaz on “Sorrow Lives Here” and dares to tackle the Stones on ‘Tumbling Dice.” [Her polished take on the latter is worlds away from the oft-incomprehensible rawness of the Stones version found on Exile on Main Street, which slightly defeats the point of covering something from that legendary platter, but it still manages to pack just enough attitude to not be embarrassing.]  The disc also sports one of Ronstadt’s most criminally underrated singles in her fun, syndrum-laden reading of Warren Zevon’s great “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” Not since Heart Like a Wheel had she made a disc that felt quite as filler-free as this.