Prisoner in Disguise
There’s something about air travel that takes all the fun out of traveling. Last week we went to sunny San Diego for a little rest and relaxation. So you get to the airport the recommended two hours before the flight for security clearance, which consists of someone scrutinizing your ID less closely than a bouncer in a bar, lose your penknife at the metal detector, then spend four hours in a cramped seat trying to keep your kid from kicking the seat in front of him while the dopey visage of Matthew McConaghey looms overhead. See the parks, beaches, zoo, beautiful downtown of San Diego, feel totally refreshed and energized. Then back to the airport for another six hours of torture, this time including a stinky diaper for the first two hours because they won’t let you out of your seat. Plus TWO trips to the parking garage because you left your keys back with the luggage. Collapse exhausted into bed at 1:30 a.m. One day of flying wiped out a week’s worth of relaxation. I’m not saying it was worse than driving across the desert for three days. But I’m not saying it was better, either.
Linda Ronstadt is like that: her formal approach to pop singing sucks a lot of the pleasure from some terrific songs. Prisoner in Disguise has tracks by Neil Young, James Taylor, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, Lowell George, Jimmy Cliff, Dolly Parton, Anna McGarrigle and, um, two by J.D. Souther. Someone either Ronstadt or her producer Peter Asher has some pretty good taste in country-rock and pop-soul. But they’re mostly rendered lifeless and/or laughable with her stilted delivery.
You see, pop singing requires a bit of the actor’s craft. Sure, you want the singer to hit the notes and get the rhythms right, but more than that, you want to hear some emotion appropriate to the song. That’s why some less-than-accurate singers retain large and loyal cults (e.g. Bob Dylan): the feeling they put into the songs overcomes any shortcomings on the technical side. Linda Ronstadt just doesn’t get it, though.
She’s a gifted and diligent singer: it sounds like she pores over the original recordings and remembers exactly which note goes where when. But there’s just no spirit there. “Heat Wave” is a hormonal blast, with a surging short-peaked melody and a mystified lyric. But Ronstadt takes all the trademark soul music whoops (“oh, oh, oh” in one ecstatic phrase) and turns them into precise scale runs (“Oh. Oh. Oh.”) “You Tell Me That I’m Falling Down” has an ambling conversational melody, which Ronstandt sticks to regardless of the appropriate intonation (if you’re going to sing, “I’m only lonely, see?” the last note should trail a little in volume, as though it’s a question, not continue in the exact same voice.)
It doesn’t help that Ronstadt seems to have a random crescendo generator in her larynx. She’s singing along nicely then, out of nowhere, she’s BELTING. “Unless you've found a way of squeezing water from a STONE.” Her band doesn’t do her a lot of favors, either, with its stiff renditions of otherwise slyly funky songs like “Roll Um Easy” and “Many Rivers to Cross.”
Ronstadt’s pure voice and impersonal delivery work well on the traditional country “The Sweetest Gift”; in that genre, those qualities have always been favored. And for some reason, she breaks out of her shell for “I Will Always Love You.” While it doesn’t quite achieve the monumental quality of Whitney Houston’s version, Ronstadt gets a catch in her voice and a real sobbing quality for the chorus if she sang all her songs with that kind of passion, this would be an excellent album.
As it is, it’s solidly mediocre. While her robotic singing takes a lot out of these songs, the fact is that they’re almost all superior compositions, and as Ray Charles says, “If you’ve written a great song, even with a bad singer it’s still a great song.”
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