Like her friend Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt has, for most of this decade, recorded albums that explore diverse, distinctive styles. Because she's an interpretive singer, this has meant different song periods, from pre-Beatles pop to Mexican mariachi tunes and country before the Nashville Sound. But the scattered Eighties have drawn to a close, and Ronstadt, like Young on his recent Freedom, has chosen to conclude ten years of work with a return to the kind of recording that made her name during the Seventies.
All Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind shares with Ronstadt's older country-rock albums, however, is that big, belting manner, which has grown more athletic and assured through the years. Looking past possible new accents, like internationalism or high-tech dance grooves, Ronstadt and her longtime producer Peter Asher have realized an album that fuses the orchestral rock of Roy Orbison, Phil Spector and the Beach Boys with soul music's passionate deliveries and insistent rhythm sections. On these terms, most of this music flourishes.
The twelve songs employ a large group of northern-Californian musicians dubbed the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra, a sly allusion to Ronstadt's relationship with filmmaker George Lucas. Engineer George Massenburg didn't record the players with the tense edges that mark many symphonic recordings in this digital era or swathe them in heavy brocades of sound. These orchestrations breathe, and they jump when one of Mike Landau's guitars holds forth or when drummers Russ Kunkel and Carlos Vega steady or rev up an underlying beat.
This return to rock syncopation makes sense. For all her curiosity about other musics, Ronstadt started out in Southwestern rock, and New Orleans's Aaron Neville — who sings with her on four songs — is one of the greatest living masters of vocal rhythm and phrasing. When, without a trace of nostalgic distance, he and Ronstadt remember Motown with Paul Carrack, Nick Lowe and Martin Belmont's "I Need You" or when they tear into "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" along with the Tower of Power horns, the swinging orchestral parts aren't plush add-ons; rather, they intensify the duo's romantic faith and exhilarations.
The same is true of Ronstadt and Neville's brilliant current hit, "Don't Know Much" (written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Tom Snow), and Ronstadt's handling of Jimmy Webb's "Adios." This last tune concerns a woman who decides to leave her lover and adopted L.A. home. Ronstadt's show-stopping performance and Brian Wilson's essential background harmonies mightily evoke the song's West Coast particulars.
On Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, Ronstadt doesn't try to pretend that her relationship with her original Seventies listeners has been all roses during the past several years. She opens the album, in fact, on shifting notes of confidence and doubt, mentioning how people hear pop singers "in an automobile or a crowded bar" or "over some radio" before she wonders whether the man — or audience — that she addresses is "Still Within the Sound of My Voice." Despite that worry, the album's final impression is that, for Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville and their many collaborators, music can still work everyday wonders. That's something well worth coming home to.