Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Good Performer's Classic Album Heart Like A Wheel Underwhelms, But Is Decent. (My Next Artist Of The Month)

The Good: Great voice, Moments of music
The Bad: Very varied lyrics, Moments that are twangy, Short!
The Basics: The vocals are wonderful, but my experiences with Linda Ronstadt's music so far indicate that's not a surprise; the best tracks are on the Greatest Hits album. Pass.

I have very high standards for artists, musical and visual. The truest artists who I respect are singer-songwriters and writer-directors (the best visual medium workers, I find are writer-director-executive producers) and I have a great love for the minds that create such art. As a result, I am often disappointed when I discover that someone whose work I have enjoyed does not actually embody their own thoughts and vision. I mean, after years of listening to Tina Turner's music on the radio and watching What's Love Got To Do With It?, I remember being exceptionally disappointed to learn that Turner was simply a performer. I picked up her two-disc greatest hits album All My Best (reviewed here!) and it was only then I learned that some of the lines she seemed to belt out from a place of her own personal pain were penned by others.

I found myself similarly disappointed to learn that Elvis Presley was largely just a performer as well. Performers are the actors of the music world and while they have a place and merit, they are interpreters of lines of others, usually guided by producers and A&R executives the way a director interprets a script for actors. The latest surprise to me as I continue my musical education has come in the form of Linda Ronstadt. I've been trying to expand my horizons and I chose Linda Ronstadt because I remembered that she praised Fahrenheit 9/11 (reviewed here!) and appeared in the DVD boxed set of The Simpsons - Season 4 (reviewed here!) for "Mr. Plow." I figured, hey, if she's good enough for Michael Moore, George Lucas (whom she was once engaged to) and The Simpsons, I ought to listen to her stuff!

I understand that there was a time Ronstadt was a singer-songwriter, but the pile of c.d.s I've been listening to for the past month of hers says otherwise. Even on her Greatest Hits album all of the songs are written by others. So, when I picked up her classic album Heart Like A Wheel to see what all the fuss with Linda Ronstadt was about, I found myself impressed with her voice, but underwhelmed by what was supposedly so great about her.

With ten tracks clocking in at 31:46, Heart Like A Wheel is a fairly diverse album of coversongs that earned Linda Ronstadt a Grammy Award. The 1974 album is now easily available on compact disc and showcases Ronstadt as a performer. She did not write any of the songs, does not play any instruments, did not do any of the orchestral arrangements, nor was she involved in the production of the album. In other words, Linda Ronstadt is a performer on this one and any artistic vision she might have is limited to how she performs the songs established by others.

Heart Like A Wheel is a rather short album that trends from the classic Country sound ("It Doesn't Matter Any More" and "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)") to (true) classic rock and roll ("You're No Good" and "When Will I Be Loved") to a more modern folk-rock sound on tracks like "You Can Close Your Eyes." The sound is slower, light rock and anyone looking for something that is rich in production will want to pass this album right by. This is a subtle, simple album that focuses on creating a very light musical sound and letting the lyrics tell the stories.

Heart Like A Wheel is not a very chipper album. With tracks like "Faithless Love," with lines like "Faithless love will find you / And the misery entwine you" this is not a real upper. The thing is, Ronstadt picked some songs with a beautiful sense of poetics, with lyrics she sings like "Raindrops falling on the broken road / Down on the lonesome valley where nobody goes . . . Faithless love like a river flows" ("Faithless Love").

The poetics of the album are consistently high, even if they are not upbeat. When Linda Ronstadt sings, "Some say the heart is just like a wheel / When you bend it, you can't mend it / But my love for you is like a sinking ship / And my heart is out on that ship in mid-ocean" ("Heart Is Like A Wheel"), it is hard not to be moved. She sings with a profound sadness and an articulation that makes that it baffling that she can sing such sad lines so clearly. Moreover, that she follows up "Heart Is Like A Wheel" with the wrenching "When Will I Be Loved," whose lyrics carry far more punch than the upbeat presentation of them, makes the album thematically unified.

The mood is kept rather consistent, though, with the similarly dreary "The Dark End Of The Street" and the unfulfilled desire of "Keep Me From Blowing Away" continuing the album.

What Heart Like A Wheel has at least as consistently is a pretty great vocal performance. Linda Ronstadt can sing, no denying that. She has a pretty amazing alto voice and she has wonderful range that goes higher when needed - like on "The Dark End Of The Street" and the track "Heart Is Like A Wheel." She makes the unpalatable lyrics of "Willing" sound good (if a little derivative of Joni Mitchell's "Carey") and on every other track, she is vocally impressive.

This is where the underproduction of Heart Like A Wheel works best; Ronstadt's voice is clearly her own. The album has a very honest and straightforward sound that resonates with the listener, especially those who are fond of actually hearing human voices in music. Ronstadt has a wonderful voice and it is clear without using alteration either of the time or when the album was remastered for compact disc.

Musically, Heart Like A Wheel is somewhat deceptive in its opening with "You're No Good." "You're No Good" and "When Will I Be Loved" are the two most rocking tracks, strongest in the guitar, and heaviest on drums. The other tracks are almost universally slower, use the guitar lighter - and with more of a twangy sound - making Heart Like A Wheel more of a pop-rock-country album than pop-rock. Indeed, it was the Hank Williams song "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)" that won Ronstadt her Grammy award from this album. She does a decent presentation of it.

Ultimately, though, there are two serious strikes against Heart Like A Wheel. First, it's short and it does not use the compact disc medium very well. I have long argued that classic records that are being remastered for compact discs ought to either be combined (two Ronstadt albums would easily fit on one c.d.) and/or include the b-sides from any singles associated with the album. This disc contains neither.

The second strike is why I ended up, ultimately, not recommending this album. I promised myself years ago that if an album's best tracks are all on the "Greatest Hits" compilation, I'd have to seriously consider "not recommending" an album. The only worthwhile track from this album that is not on The Very Best Of Linda Ronstadt is "You Can Close Your Eyes" and, truth be told, I can take it or leave it. The four best songs on this album are all on that compilation, so it's tough to advise people to shell out good money for this one.

The best track is "When Will I Be Loved," the low point is "Willing."

For other works from prior Artists Of The Month, please visit my reviews of:
Any Day Now - Joan Baez
My Love: Ultimate Essential Collection - Celine Dion
MTV Unplugged - 10,000 Maniacs


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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