Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris [extended]

  • Silk Purse [Capitol, 1970] B
  • Linda Ronstadt [Capitol, 1972] B-
  • Don't Cry Now [Asylum, 1973] C+
  • Pieces of the Sky [Reprise, 1974] C+
  • Different Drum [Capitol, 1974] B-
  • Heart Like a Wheel [Capitol, 1974] A-
  • Elite Hotel [Reprise, 1975] C+
  • Prisoner in Disguise [Asylum, 1975] B
  • Luxury Liner [Reprise, 1976] B
  • Hasten Down the Wind [Asylum, 1976] B-
  • Greatest Hits [Asylum, 1976] B+
  • A Retrospective [Capitol, 1977] B+
  • Simple Dreams [Asylum, 1977] B+
  • Profile: The Best of Emmylou Harris [Reprise, 1978] B+
  • Living in the U.S.A. [Asylum, 1978] B
  • Mad Love [Asylum, 1980] B-
  • Get Closer [Asylum, 1982] C+
  • What's New [Asylum, 1983] C-
  • Trio [Warner Bros., 1987] B+
  • At the Ryman [Reprise, 1992] **
  • Cowgirl's Prayer [Asylum, 1993] Choice Cuts
  • Songs of the West [Warner Bros., 1994] *
  • Wrecking Ball [Elektra, 1995] B
  • Spyboy [Eminent, 1998] Dud
  • Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions [Asylum, 1999] *
  • Trio II [Asylum, 1999] Neither
  • Red Dirt Girl [Nonesuch, 2000] C

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Linda Ronstadt: Silk Purse [Capitol, 1970]
This ought to be a good record. She's tough (and sexy) live, and she sure does pick good tunes--Mickey Newbury's new-Nashville "Are My Thoughts With You?," which in Newbury's 45-rpm version has gotten a lot of play on my bedroom jukebox, says a lot about love and its dislocations, but so does Mel Tillis's old-Nashville "Mental Revenge," which I'd never heard before. Country material over rock-flavored arrangements is the concept, and the honky vulgarity of Ronstadt's voice the reason. But only occasionally--"Lovesick Blues" and "Long Long Time" are both brilliant--does she seem to find Kitty Wells's soul as well as her timbre. B

Linda Ronstadt: Linda Ronstadt [Capitol, 1972]
In which she makes a silk purse out of Silk Purse, not such a great idea--smoother, better crafted, more beautiful, and decidedly less interesting. Hardcore country songs are down to three, and here's the giveaway: four entries from the Sensitivity Squad (Jackson Browne, Livingston Taylor, and the Erics Kaz and Andersen). B-

Linda Ronstadt: Don't Cry Now [Asylum, 1973]
In which whatever was raunchy and country about her is laundered in David Geffen's homogenizing machine, manned this time by John David Souther, who must have told her that "Sail Away" was just another pretty song. You think she's gotten so used to playing the dumb chick that she's turned into one? C+

Emmylou Harris: Pieces of the Sky [Reprise, 1974]
Abetted by Brian Ahern, who would have been wise to add some Anne Murray schlock, Harris shows off a pristine earnestness that has nothing to do with what is most likable about country music and everything to do with what is most suspect in "folk." Presumably, Gram Parsons was tough enough to discourage this tendency or play against it, but as a solo mannerism it doesn't even ensure clear enunciation: I swear the chorus of the best song here sounds like it begins: "I will rub my asshole/In the bosom of Abraham." C+

Linda Ronstadt: Different Drum [Capitol, 1974]
With any suggestion that she can rock expunged from this compilation, we get five (out of ten) cuts by the Stone Poneys, the two good ones composed by none other than Michael Nesmith and the worst by Tim Buckley, who inspires her to imitate Joan Baez imitating (if that's necessary) a snooty spinster. We also get Jackson Browne and Livingston Taylor. Hey, maybe she can't rock. B-

Linda Ronstadt: Heart Like a Wheel [Capitol, 1974]
For the first time, everybody's sexpot shows confidence in her own intelligence. As a result, she relates to these songs instead of just singing them. It's even possible to imagine her as a lady trucker going down on Dallas Alice--and to fault her for ignoring the metaphorical excesses of Anna McGarrigle's title lyric just so she can wrap her lungs around that sweet, decorous melody. A-

Emmylou Harris: Elite Hotel [Reprise, 1975]
This flows better than the first, but it also makes clear that Emmylou is just another pretty voice, a country singer by accident. I mean, Linda Ronstadt has the best female voice in country music, and even she doesn't satisfy the way an original like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn does. And since there's not a cover version here that equals its prototype, all she accomplishes with her good taste in material is to send you scurrying for the sources. I prefer Donna Fargo. Not Lynn Anderson, though. C+

Linda Ronstadt: Prisoner in Disguise [Asylum, 1975]
I agree that this is a letdown after Heart Like a Wheel, but I wish someone could tell me why. Maybe the explanations are vague--she's repeating a formula, she's not putting out, etc.--because a singer like Ronstadt, who specializes in interpreting good songs rather than projecting a strong persona, must achieve an ineffable precision to succeed. But maybe it's simpler than that. People say her versions of "Tracks of My Tears" and "Heat Wave" are weak, but they're not--they simply don't match the too familiar originals. "When Will I Be Loved?" and "You're No Good," on the other hand, were great songs half-remembered, kicking off each side of Heart Like a Wheel with a jolt to the memory. And this album could sure use a jolt of something. B

Emmylou Harris: Luxury Liner [Reprise, 1976]
Not content with her corner on the wraith-with-a-twang market, some folk's favorite folkie manque has added funk and raunch and echo and overdub to her voice. The result is a record I play some, perhaps out of sheer surprise. Song selection also helps--an unforgettable Townes Van Zandt melody is unearthed, and the two Gram Parsons selections don't automatically shame themselves by recalling the originals. B

Linda Ronstadt: Hasten Down the Wind [Asylum, 1976]
Linda's always wanted to be a Real Country Singer, but RCS put out two or three LPs like this every year. You know--find some good tunes, round up the gang, and apply formula. Like the great RCS she can be, she comes up with some inspired interpretations: the flair of "That'll Be the Day" and "Crazy" do justice to the originals, and her version of the title song almost makes you forget its unfortunate title. But you cover Tracy Nelson's "Down So Low" at your peril even if you believe not one in ten of your fans remembers it, and the three Karla Bonoff lyrics make her (I mean Karla, but Linda too) sound like such a born loser that I never want to hear anyone sing them again. B-

Linda Ronstadt: Greatest Hits [Asylum, 1976]
Because it compiles work from both Capitol and Asylum, I anticipated an ideal sampler, especially when the first side induced me to enjoy "Desperado," which she sings real purty. But the second side features her inferior versions of no less than three songs, suggesting that one might be better off obtaining her best music from its corporation of origin. B+

Linda Ronstadt: A Retrospective [Capitol, 1977]
Safe (five cuts from Heart Like a Wheel, worth owning itself), genteel (six from Linda Ronstadt, her most conventional album for the label), and occasionally tasteless ("Hobo" is pure artysong and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" failed nostalgia), this is nevertheless a listenable compilation. "Lovesick Blues" and "Rescue Me" rock a lot better than "Heat Wave," the Stone Poneys stuff surpasses that on Different Drum, Capitol's 1968 "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" sounds fresher than Asylum's 1973, and the genteel stuff does mix well, as they say. B+

Linda Ronstadt: Simple Dreams [Asylum, 1977]
In which Andrew Gold goes off and Pursues His Solo Career, enabling Ronstadt to hire herself a rock and roll band. She's still too predictable--imagine how terse and eloquent "Blue Bayou" would seem if instead of turning up the volume midway through she just hit one high note at the end--but she's also a pop eclectic for our time, as comfortable with Mick Jagger as with Dolly Parton, interpreting Roy Orbison as easily as Buddy Holly. Even her portrayal of a junkie seeking succor from Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" isn't totally ridiculous. And I admit it--she looks great in a Dodger jacket. B+

Emmylou Harris: Profile: The Best of Emmylou Harris [Reprise, 1978]
Lucky for Emmylou I don't know as much about country music as she does--the Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love" and the Carter Family's "Hello Stranger" may well render her versions forgettable. But as it is, hers sure are pretty, like almost everything here, sung with undeniable care and charm. She also defines Dolly Parton's previously unrecorded "To Daddy," as great a song as that great songwriter has ever come up with. And does all right by Chuck Berry. B+

Linda Ronstadt: Living in the U.S.A. [Asylum, 1978]
This one divides right down the middle. The last four covers on the second side are so clumsy that I may never again hear the opener, Little Feat's "All That You Dream." But I do kind of like the first side, specifically including the forced intensity of the Chuck Berry and Doris Troy remakes. Only on "Alison," though, does she enrich what she interprets. B

Linda Ronstadt: Mad Love [Asylum, 1980]
I had hopes for this album--Linda's always been underrated as a rocker--but it falls way over on the strident side of powerful. The songs could be sharper, although except for "Justine" those from Richard Perry's prefab Cretones are more than adequate, but the real problem is the basic fallacy of L.A. punk--Linda doesn't understand that the idea is to use a sledgehammer deftly. This is how Ethel Merman would do Elvis Costello, only Ethel Merman has a better sense of humor. And though the other covers sound pretty good, only "I Can't Let Go" fits in conceptually, and I'd rather hear them from Little Anthony or Young Neil or Ye Olde Hollies. B-

Linda Ronstadt: Get Closer [Asylum, 1982]
Could be her, could be us, probably's both, but never has Ronstadt sounded more the art singer than on this painfully precise collection. James Taylor, of all people, saves the Ike & Tina cover, and Rod Taylor, of all people, adds one more great ballad to her canon, but I suggest that she git while the gitting's good. C+

Linda Ronstadt: What's New [Asylum, 1983]
Especially given the rich little rich girl's South African connection, I ignored this airless atrocity--lots of bad records sell, and parents do need X-mas gifts. But when it scored in my own critics' poll I could remain silent no longer. Forget phrasing, interpretation, or--God knows from someone who had trouble rocking "Heat Wave"--swing. All Ronstadt does with these fine-to-middling pop standards is stifle them beneath her moderately gorgeous voice. Her triumph is conceptual--genteel neoconservatives, kneejerk pluralists, one-upping convolutionists, and out-and-out ignoramuses all get off on the idea of a "rock" performer validating the prerock values such songs signal. And may every one of them wear a tie, a garter belt, or both for the rest of their shrinking lives. C-

Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris: Trio [Warner Bros., 1987]
By devoting herself to Nelson Riddle and operetta, Sun City scab Linda Ronstadt has made boycotting painless, but her long-promised hookup with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris will be hard to resist if the vocal luxuries of the mainstream biz make you swoon. Acoustic country delving from "Farther Along" and Jimmie Rodgers to Kate McGarrigle and Linda Thompson, it's a slightly scholarly yet sometimes thrilling apotheosis of harmony--three voices that have triumphed in the winner-take-all of the marketplace making a go of cooperation. Free of tits, glitz, and syndrums for the first time in a decade, Parton's penetrating purity dominates the one-off as it once did country music history. The only one of the three who's had the courage of her roots recently, Harris sounds as thoughtful up front as she does in the backup roles that are her forte. And while Linda's plump soprano will always hint of creamed corn, she's a luscious side dish in this company. B+

Emmylou Harris: At the Ryman [Reprise, 1992]
grand old newfangled one-woman hootenanny ("Hard Times," "Guitar Town") **

Emmylou Harris: Cowgirl's Prayer [Asylum, 1993]
"Jerusalem Tomorrow" Choice Cuts

Emmylou Harris: Songs of the West [Warner Bros., 1994]
selflessly serving the song for 17 years ("Queen of the Silver Dollar," "I'll Be Your San Antone Rose") *

Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball [Elektra, 1995]
The reason Harris's instant comeback is an irritation, not a tragedy, is that the inspired collaborator and nonpareil backup singer has no vision of her own for Daniel Lanois to ruin. Her artistic personality has always been coextensive with her miraculously lucid voice, which now that it's fraying with age is ripe for Lanois's one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul. I doubt she would have nailed the songs anyway--often she doesn't. But she would have come closer than this. B

Emmylou Harris: Spyboy [Eminent, 1998] Dud

Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions [Asylum, 1999]
tribute to the modern art-song, country-folk division ("Western Wall," "1917") *

Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris: Trio II [Asylum, 1999] Neither

Emmylou Harris: Red Dirt Girl [Nonesuch, 2000]
What a weird (dishonest? ironic? clueless?) name for a record that's all literature and arty sound effects. Even the title song, while indeed describing the white South of the artist's putative roots, balances on the fulcrum of a four-syllable word: Meridian, which joins allelujah, sanctuary, Antonia, and great big Michelangelo in reminding us that Harris has put away childish things. Instead we get a record worthy of her (to mush up review gush) "celestial" and "eminent" voice, one that "shimmers with poetic imagery and soul." Mortality, redemption, angels, all the important stuff, adorned with Daniel-Lanois-once-removed soundscape. Nary an antiwar song, yet you know Joan Baez is proud. C