Say what you will about Linda Ronstadt, you have to admire her pluck. Whether singing Elvis Costello or Rodgers and Hart or La Bohème or The Pirates of Penzance or the role of Ginger in Carla Bley’s late-Sixties jazz opera Escalator over the Hill, she has always displayed a willingness to gamble. But on Lush Life, her second album of vintage standards with Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra, the payoffs are pretty slim.
In many ways, Lush Life is a distinct improvement over 1983’s What’s New. The program is more varied in tempo, for one thing, and Riddle’s orchestrations are less turgid and more restrained — indeed, on “You Took Advantage of Me,” the album’s most felicitous selection, Ronstadt takes her gloves off and mixes it up with the rhythm section, and one hardly notices the orchestration at all. Yet, overall, one feels less inclined to be charitable toward this second effort, since it apparently represents a career shift rather than a charming one-shot.
The problem is that Ronstadt simply has little feel for songs like “Skylark,” “Sophisticated Lady” and “Can’t We Be Friends”; her countrified belting is too anachronistic. When she strives for Mildred Bailey’s sultriness, she comes up with Connie Francis’ weepiness; and even when her interpretations are credible, they are hardly definitive. She deserves points for including the opening verse of “It Never Entered My Mind,” but someone should have told her Lorenz Hart’s litany of oversights should be declaimed in a manner more jocular than lachrymose (and someone should tell her that in order to convey this song’s terse, exasperated sophistication, she should have dropped her C&W accent).
But why all the fuss about having Linda Ronstadt sing standards anyway? Could it have something to do with the fact that pop music is one of the last areas in which there’s still a generation gap, and we baby boomers are willing to listen only to singers our own age? Ronstadt has told interviewers she believes that revived interest in pop of the Thirties and Forties may indicate that we’re ready to reconcile our tastes with those of our parents. But as long as we shower accolades on Ronstadt for singing Gershwin and Berlin, and spit at singers over forty for doing the same thing, it’s more as if we were trying to usurp our elders by fooling ourselves into believing we can beat them at their own game.