Linda Ronstadt

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

By Joyce Millman
Published July 22, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

After dabbling in every musical genre except for maybe gangsta rap,
electronica and klezmer, Linda Ronstadt returns to her country-rock roots
for her 31st album, "We Ran." She sticks firmly to the cover-song formula
(some rock, some country, some R&B) and vocal incarnations (tough chick,
dewy wildflower, pop diva) that carried her through such '70s classics as
"Heart Like a Wheel," "Hasten Down the Wind" and "Living in the U.S.A."

"We Ran" is, like so much of Ronstadt's rock work, uneven. She can be a
wonderfully instinctive interpreter of other people's songs; her fleshy,
knowing versions of John Hiatt's haunted lost-love lament "When We Ran" and
his barstool pickup ballad "Icy Blue Heart" (both backed by Heartbreakers
Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench) are the most satisfying, fully realized
tracks on "We Ran." But her precisely enunciated and lullaby-pretty
version of Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" ranks with her covers of
Elvis Costello's "Alison" and the Stones' "Tumbling Dice" for cluelessness.
And Ronstadt continues to exhibit a tendency to overthink the life out of a
song. Her version of Bruce Springsteen's gorgeous wedding ballad "If I
Should Fall Behind" is fussily contrived as a companion piece to the
original. She deliberately flattens the melody and elongates the phrasing,
singing it as if she's harmonizing with Springsteen, except he's not

Some critics are treating "We Ran" as Ronstadt's "Nick of Time" or "A
Few Small Repairs," the albums that recharged Bonnie Raitt's and Shawn
Colvin's careers. But there's an emptiness at the center of "We Ran" -- and
at the center of all of Ronstadt's rock albums. Unlike Raitt, her
personality isn't forceful enough to consistently turn others' songs into
personal statements. And unlike Colvin, she doesn't write. After all these
years, she's still a musical clotheshorse, playing dress-up with songs and

A disturbing note: Now that Ronstadt is getting up there in years and
isn't as nubile as she was in the days when she posed in hot pants and
roller skates for the cover of "Living in the U.S.A.," she's been pictured
on her recent releases from the neck up, if at all. On "We Ran," the only
part of Ronstadt we see is her big brown eyes -- superimposed over a
model's shapely bare legs running down railroad tracks. This humiliating
image speaks volumes. If only Ronstadt could find (or write) an album's
worth of songs about the indignities of growing older, she'd have her

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Built to Spill


HEAR IT |-->BUY IT -->

-->BY ANDREW HAMLIN | Built to Spill's recently reissued first album from 1993 finds
guitarist-doyen Doug Martsch in training for the marathon he'll
run on 1997's "Perfect From Now On." Full of simmering moods and layers of
guitar that sit brooding and then punch through the speakers in
audio viriti snatch-and-grabs of distortion, four of "Wavers'"
10 tracks clock in at more than six minutes. But while Martsch
might wave his red cape at the charging bull of monotony, he spins
away ungored each time, thanks mostly to his impeccable sense of
structure. He's learned more than a few lessons from the long
slow burns of Neil Young & Crazy Horse, but adds his own
idiosyncratic magic of turning guitar noises into languid fire-engine glissandi or aliens that talk to each other in bursts of measured static and whines.

Playing off of charge-and-trot alterations in tempo and volume, "Wavers" showcases Martsch's distinctive warm whine, which you forgive like you forgive a lover snapping at you
after a 14-hour road trip. It registers in the aggregate as Neil Young with a young man's passion, ready to chart the interstellar byways.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Nanci Griffith


BUY IT -->

BY MARK ATHITAKIS | Nanci Griffith has always been a traditionalist, though never quite sure of
what tradition she loves best. Too folk for country, too country for rock,
her recent albums have opted for an antiseptic, adult-contemporary stew.
Still, she possesses a gorgeous, shimmering voice and an unimpeachable ear
for melody, and her covers display her strong grasp of folk history:
1993's "Other Voices, Other Rooms" collected her contemporaries to take a
panoramic look at the past, from Janis Ian to John Prine to Woody Guthrie
to Bob Dylan.

Problem is, Griffith's approach to songs is so note-perfect, so cleanly produced and
polite, that she tends to squeeze the life out of them. "Other Voices, Too"
does little to alter the approach, although at 19 songs she's broadened her
scope even wider. Opening with songs by two Fairport Convention
alumni -- Richard Thompson's "Wall of Death" and Sandy Denny's "Who Knows
Where the Time Goes" -- she offers endearing if overly styled takes on
history as written by Johnny Cash, Harlan Howard, Dave Van Ronk, Guthrie
again and a host of folk scribes modern and archaic. There are smart
choices for cameos -- Steve Earle, Odetta, Lucinda Williams -- but they act
more as day laborers than as individual voices; improvisation would only mess
up the coffee-table feel the album strives for. Until the rousing ensemble
take on "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)" that closes the album, it
would convince neophytes that folk music works best as background
music for trimming the bougainvillea. For shame.

DJ Hardware



BUY IT -->

BY J. POET | As anyone who's spent more than a few minutes in a dance club knows,
DJs play more than records (and lest you carp at the terminology, the
majority of good dance music still does come out on vinyl). A good DJ plays the crowd just as surely as (s)he spins records. In that regard, Boca Raton, Fla.'s DJ Hardware (Todd Greenhouse) has earned his props on the wheels of steel as top jock, while his 14 compilations
of trip-hop and acid funk mayhem have made him an underground dance-hall
legend. So, while Hardware doesn't do any remixing of his own, his
sequencing of current and classic tracks has a logic that makes
these discs sound cohesive. "Volume 1," an exploration of Big Beat, a
drum 'n' bass style that accents the percussive side of the equation,
keeps the energy high with anthems like the Boston Bruins' "Raise Your
Hands" and 43's "How the Bass Kix." The hard-core trance of "Volume
2" gets your body pumping with punishing tempos and slashing electronics
that hark back to techno's early days. If you're older than 25, you may
go into cardiac arrest trying to keep up with this stuff, but you'll
have a good time trying.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Counting Crows


BUY IT -->

BY GAVIN McNETT | As though we needed the lesson, here's another demonstration of the saturnine pace at
which major rock product is metered out nowadays. The Crows' first chart buster, "August and
Everything After," appeared all the way back in 1993. The follow-up, from about two years
ago, is still spinning away on Big Radio. And now, raining into the bins, comes a two-show
double-live set with four overlapping songs right in the same package.

Think of it: In the time it took to go from "Meet the Beatles" to "The White Album" -- or
from "Chicago Transit Authority" to, like, "Chicago XXVII" -- Counting Crows has
produced around one and a half hours of actual, finished music. Yee! That means, for both them and for us, that every move the Crows make counts dollars on the dime compared to a real, vintage
classic-rock outfit. They've got a really small canvas: They don't have the liberty to fudge
around on it.

But "fudge" isn't really the word here. You think "fudge," you're thinking something rich,
sweet, substantial. "Across a Wire" is more like last week's lemon trifle, tricked up with
a new coat of meringue. Adam Duritz is -- let's just say it -- hampered by a vocal and emotional range that can stray from the nasal or the overwrought, but seldom from both at once. And the arrangements on the first, VH1-sponsored disc are mature and eclectic -- which means: add accordion parts and string bass; destroy all hooks. "Rain King" and others are interesting in their new forms, but mostly because they demonstrate what a professionalist, music-bizzy outfit the Crows are in real life: studio-slickoids, not weirdo-beardo Frisco prodigies.
The second, MTV-sponsored set is better on all counts, but despite some great performances
(especially "Angels of the Silences"), the studio albums -- all two of 'em -- are far more definitive.

Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

MORE FROM Joyce Millman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Country Music Music