Linda Ronstadt probably has the most beautiful and technically accomplished voice ever to grace a Mexican ranchera. On Más Canciones, her second collection of Mexican songs, Ronstadt's pristine, bell-shaped chest tones, clear falsetto and controlled sobs compete with the crystalline strings and trumpets of the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan orchestra for sheer prettiness. The trouble is that the Mexican ranchera is not a quaint traditional music. A theater of human emotions, written in vernacular poetry of pain, pride and sexual braggadocio, ranchera is dramatic, at times hyperbolic, never merely pretty, Mexico's beloved pantheon of great female stars, from Lucha Reyes to Amalia Mendoza and Lola Beltrán (who seems to be Ronstadt's model in this genre), cannot match Ronstadt's tonal purity, and they sometimes hit notes flat or sharp. But their gritty cries and explosive crescendos raise goose bumps. Ronstadt does not, and in ranchera, goose bumps rule.
Phrasing is Ronstadt's main problem, just as it was in her interpretations of jazz standards. The regular 3/4 rhythm of most rancheras is deceptively simple. Mexico's divas heighten drama and excitement by rushing the beat ever so slightly, spurring the mariachi orchestra like a cowgirl goads a galloping pony. Ronstadt has yet to grasp this dimension of the music, and so her straight, careful readings have a textbook flatness. The other problem is idiomatic. The liner notes for Más Canciones contain odd, often incorrect translations of the Spanish lyrics that make me wonder if Ronstadt always understands what these songs really mean (were her Mexican musical consultants too embarrassed to explain the sexual puns in "La Mariquita" and "El Gustito"?).
Ronstadt clearly loves this music, and her passion, however flawed its realization, has the potential to lead a huge pop audience to the rich and diverse music of Mexico, a music that, incidentally, is not at all the museum piece that the faithful folkiness of Más Canciones implies. Mexico's pop music has always been infused with traditional elements — indeed, most of the songs Ronstadt sings, written by tunesmiths in the Forties and Fifties, were the pop hits of their day.
Ranchera remains a major influence in today's Mexican pop, and its melodramatic style is a perfect foil for rock & roll, as the recent album Mi México, by Mexico's premier singer-songwriter, Ana Gabriel, proves. Gabriel also has produced an entire album with a mariachi orchestra, but she uses it to underscore and highlight the emotional pop-rock fireworks of her own songs. Gabriel's neo-ranchera has some of Ronstadt's same weaknesses in phrasing, but the Mexican singer's explosive, raw and craggy voice more than compensates, as does her thoroughly modern point of view. In Gabriel's rancheras, women's suffering steps boldly out of passive mode; in "Voy a Ser" (I'm going to be) she sings: "I'm going to make you love me even more than yesterday/And after I've got you in my hands/I'll make sure you pay dearly for your deceit." Más Canciones is a nostalgic watercolor of ranchera's past; Mi México, a gritty black-and-white portrait of Mexican music today.