Give Linda Ronstadt her due. From her earliest days, the first lady of rock has been a great technical singer with no interpretative ability, no nuance. What should a singer who needs work on her interpretative ability do? Study the great singers of the past several decades — Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald. To Ronstadt’s considerable credit, she’s done precisely that. The result is an album of standards called What’s New, and it’s a long way from the sacrilege some might have feared.
Her version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch over Me,” for example, is poutily poignant and enticingly languorous, especially when she wraps her chops around the song’s soaring title line. “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears out to Dry” lacks the emotional force of Frank Sinatra’s version, but when Linda wails, “Then one day he passed me right by/Oh, well, I guess I’ll hang my tears out to dry,” by God, you notice. As always, if there are walls to be moved with sheer volume and beauty of vocal tone, Ronstadt can do the job.
In the past, Ronstadt has compensated for her too-straightforward style by adopting — some would say affecting — an overly careful approach, as if she were aiming the notes instead of singing them. Happily, she’s started to overcome this trait. Her version of “Crazy He Calls Me” pales next to Billie Holiday’s, but Ronstadt’s relaxed phrasing shows surprising growth.
Ah, but what’s the point of this record, anyway? If this were your favorite type of music, you probably wouldn’t be reading this magazine. An album of standards may not have been a bad idea, but recording them with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra was. Sure, the arrangements are nice, but they’d suit Eydie Gorme just as nicely. Not to place these songs into some kind of contemporary context — as Rickie Lee Jones did on Girl at Her Volcano — is to turn them into museum pieces, and to make Ronstadt’s own contribution into a feat, a stunt, fascinating but lifeless.
That Linda Ronstadt has learned a lot about singing from her exposure to these standards is readily apparent. But had she cast these songs in new settings, she might have introduced them to a whole new audience and proved their lasting greatness in the process.