Depending on how seriously one takes Linda Ronstadt these days, Canciones de Mi Padre (“Songs of My Father”) is either a deeply felt homage to her family’s Mexican heritage or the party-gag album of the year. For this confusion the blame must rest largely with Ronstadt herself, who’s spent the Eighties flitting from one musical style to another — fake New Wave, operetta, big-band pop standards — without staking a claim to any of them. Now along comes her album of Mexican folk songs and ballads, complete with a cover that makes her look like an El Torrito waitress who’s been nibbling at the guacamole.
In this case, though, Ronstadt isn’t as dilettantish as she may seem. Her earlier forays into Spanish-language recordings — one track on 1976’s Hasten down the Wind and a duet with Rubén Blades on his album Escenas — displayed her ease with the language. And this time she couldn’t have found a better showcase than mariachi, the Mexican band music that dominates these thirteen tracks (which range from traditional songs to Latin hits of the early twentieth century). Ronstadt’s increasingly guttural soprano lends itself to brassy huapangos and rancheras (folk dances) like “Los Laureles,” and the self-pitying lyrics in the ballads and corridos (story songs) are enough to make J.D. Souther jealous.
Brought in for requisite authenticity, bandleader Ruben Fuentes arranged and coproduced the album with Ronstadt’s producer and manager, Peter Asher. Here’s where the album tends to go awry. In the Sixties, Fuentes was responsible for slicking up the traditionally simple mariachi style with strings and brass. On Canciones de Mi Padre, he lives up to his reputation, using a number of solid mariachi bands, including his own, but swamping them in syrupy strings and warbling trumpets. That may be in keeping with mariachi, which has always been a slightly cornball genre, but it doesn’t excuse the flutes that clutter simple ballads like “La Calandria.”
When Fuentes’s arrangements aren’t threatening to capsize the record, then Ronstadt herself is: she belts out the lovelorn ballad “Hay Unos Ojos” as if she were still on Broadway, and “Tú Sólo Tú,” a song of drunken longing, is done as a sprightly duet for no logical reason. But taken as a risky commercial move at a time when Ronstadt could use a Top Ten hit, Canciones de Mi Padre is a fascinating bit of eccentricity from a most unlikely source.