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Linda Ronstadt

The Best Of Linda Ronstadt: The Capitol Years – 2006 (Capitol/EMI)

Reviewed by Eli Messinger

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CDs by Linda Ronstadt

This set's humble title should really be "Total Capitol," given its inclusion of all four of Linda Ronstadt's turn-of-the-'70s Capitol albums and a quintet of bonus tracks. Two full CDs chronicle the singer's growth from a pop-folkie to a full-fledged country-rock goddess, culminating in the 1974 landmark, "Heart Like a Wheel" and its lesser-lauded, but even more fulfilling eponymous 1972 predecessor.

Disc one opens with Ronstadt's 1969 solo debut, "Hand Sown... Home Grown," capturing a tug-of-war between the singer's folk/country sensibility and producer Chip Douglas' (Monkees, Turtles) pop-rock leanings. The arrangements allow for country-styled harmonies and twangy picking, but they're also laced with fuzztone steel guitar, tablas and orchestral touches that undermine the singer's back-to-the-country approach.

Ronstadt stretches out on muscular, bluesy readings of Randy Newman's "Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad" and Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and returns to her lyrical folk roots for the album's single (penned by ex-Stone Pony Kenneth Edwards) "The Long Way Around."

The 1970 "Silk Purse" LP trades Douglas' pop overlays for Elliot Mazer's soulful influences and a more basic country-rock sound, providing a balance between the Nashville-based backing band (Code 615) and Ronstadt's west coast tinged vocals. Mickey Newbury's "Are My Thoughts with You?" backs Ronstadt with a soulful gospel chorus, and the country-blue "Louise" is winningly stripped down to acoustic guitar and a male harmony. A fiddle-driven cover of Mel Tillis "Mental Revenge" and two versions of Gene Clark and Bernie Leadon's "He Darked the Sun" telegraph the commitment to country that Ronstadt would bring to full fruition on her next two albums. Oddly, the album's most commercially successful track, "Long Long Time" is also the most highly produced and the least country sounding. Disc two is the heart and soul of this set. 1972's "Linda Ronstadt," recorded with producer John Boylan, and backed by a pre-Eagles formation of Frey, Henley, Meisner and Leadon, refines the country-rock balance while retaining some of the brashness of the first two albums.

Covers of country icons "Crazy Arms," "I Still Miss Someone" and "I Fall to Pieces" are spine-tingling in their originality and freshness, and contemporary songs from Jackson Browne ("Rock Me On the Water"), Livingston Taylor ("In My Reply"), Neil Young ("Birds") and Eric Andersen ("I Ain't Always Been Faithful") feel purpose built for Ronstadt's emotion-laden vocals. Bonus tracks include a live version of "Long Long Time" that displays what a showstopper this was on stage.

The set concludes with Ronstadt's biggest critical success, 1974's "Heart Like a Wheel." From the opening riff of "You're No Good" there's no mistaking that all of the pieces had fallen together. Ronstadt grabs hold of each song lyric, backed her most subtle and sophisticated arrangements yet.

In addition to the hits (which included a redefining cover of the Everly Brothers "When Will I Be Loved"), the album sports wonderfully despondent covers of Paul Anka's (by way of Buddy Holly's) "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," the Penn/Moman Muscle Shoals classic "The Dark End of the Street" and adds a terrific Emmylou Harris harmony to Hank Williams' "I Can't Help it (If I'm Still in Love With You)." The album closes with two superb ballads, Paul Craft's country waltz "Keep Me From Blowing Away" and James Taylor's pop-folk "You Can Close Your Eyes."

Listening through all four albums provides a time-compressed experience of fantastic artistic growth. Disc one finds Ronstadt striving, disc two finds her arrived. And though she garnered even more massive commercial acclaim on subsequent Asylum LPs, she never again matched the combination of youthful ambition and maturing passion displayed herein. A must-have for any country rock fan.