In her Seventies country-rock heyday, Linda Ronstadt brought a lusciously formal approach to pop singing, which put all the money on song interpretation. Los Angeles ballads, singer/songwriter rarities, rock & roll chestnuts; North American regionals, Sinatra, opera — over the years, all became serious business indeed to Ronstadt, whose voice always seemed important enough to command its own U.N. seat. We Ran, done with atypically sparse studio bands composed of rock players like Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, continues the Ronstadt tradition with honor. She holds together “When We Ran,” a sweeping Faulknerian soul ballad by John Hiatt about a couple of luckless curs in love, with the sheer power of her heady attacks and unassailable notes. On songs by Bruce Springsteen (“If I Should Fall Behind”), Doc Pomus (“Cry ‘Til My Tears Run Dry”), Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”) and others, Ronstadt fuses emotion and skill, adapting her bold style to the respective intimacy, glamour and freedom of those classic songwriters.
These days, pop divas are everywhere; few, however, follow the Ronstadt approach. (Whitney Houston and Trisha Yearwood are the exceptions.) Yet all may not be entirely lost. On Sittin’ on Top of the World, fifteen-year-old LeAnn Rimes holds her own in the more popular style of Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, wherein a spectacular voice upstages a song, grins and goes on about her business. Rimes opens her album with “Commitment,” a country smash whose grand choruses soar uncannily like a Number One on the Italian hit parade. Elsewhere, Rimes jumps virtuosically around, singing about teenage boredom on “Nothin’ New Under the Moon,” the timelessness of hard country on “These Arms of Mine,” and, with prim Nashville lover boy Bryan White on backgrounds, the comfort of suburban country on “When Am I Gonna Get Over You.” Rimes ends her album with a mysterious version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” that’s neither travesty nor triumph; it’s just earnestly delivered. Given Rimes’ real ability to be her own kind of diva, the true offense of Sittin’ on Top of the World is a bunch of gimmicky mikes and echo effects used on Rimes’ voice. Ronstadt would have vetoed those.