Song of the Day, April 21: You Can Close Your Eyes by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtwheeleyesToday’s song is a multifaceted musical collaboration. James Taylor wrote You Can Close Your Eyes in 1970. He calls it a “secular hymn”, a touching meditation on loss and separation. The track appeared on his 1971 album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon and as the b-side of his #1 hit You’ve Got A Friend (written by Carole King). He has acknowledged that he wrote the song about his short, tumultuous affair with Joni Mitchell. The references to singing and sight are natural and poignant.

Linda Ronstadt included a cover of the song as the closing track of her finest album, Heart Like A Wheel. It’s a smart choice, and she makes the track her own. With a bittersweet delivery, she offers a sad farewell as she wraps up the disc. It’s a fine recording, nicely produced by Peter Asher and Andrew Gold, and a standout in her substantial catalog.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

BONUS: Enjoy this stirring version recorded by Taylor and Mitchell for the BBC.

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Song of the Day, March 27: Easy For You To Say by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtclosereasyToday’s song is a smart moment by a master interpreter. By the time she recorded her 11th solo album, Linda Ronstadt was a superstar with a proven approach. Each disc included songs written by longtime friends and regular collaborators, a couple of classic covers, and a few songs by emerging songwriters. Get Closer is a solid effort that follows this pattern to good effect. The standout track was written by veteran composer Jimmy Webb.

Unlike the lush, intricate songs for which he is best known, Easy For You To Say is a simple track. It explores the frustration of a woman whose lover has abandoned her, offering shallow excuses. Ronstadt is in fine voice, mining the subtle ache of the lyrics nicely. She saves up her dismay for the chorus, smoldering as she sings the title line. With a crack band and smart production from long-time partner Peter Asher, she offers one of her finest moments on record.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Album of the Week, March 5: Heart Like A Wheel by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtwheeleyesLinda Ronstadt grew up in Tucson, AZ, the daughter of pioneering Arizona ranchers of mostly German and Mexican descent. Her whole family loved music, and she absorbed a wide array of styles by the time she was 10. She credits significant influence from artists as disparate as Hank Williams and Maria Callas. At 14, she and two of her siblings formed a folk trio. She grew increasingly interested in merging folk and rock, eventually dropping out of college to join friend Bobby Kimmel in L.A. They hooked up with Kenny Edwards and formed the Stone Poneys, whose Different Drum gave Ronstadt her first hit. After three Poneys discs, she went solo, recording a series of albums blending pop, country, and folk and touring with artists ranging from the Doors to Jackson Browne. Her albums met with limited success, but she gradually developed a distinctive style and a significant circle of like-minded musical friends and collaborators. Her 1973 album Don’t Cry Now found her working with J.D. Souther, future Eagles Glenn Frey and Don Henley, and — significantly — British pop singer and producer Peter Asher. They meshed well in the studio, with Asher understanding Ronstadt’s broad tastes and talents. He signed on as producer for her next album, which proved to be her breakthrough.

Title Heart Like A Wheel
Act Linda Ronstadt
Label Capitol Release Date November 1974
Producer Peter Asher (with Andrew Gold)
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. You’re No Good [#1]
  2. It Doesn’t Matter Anymore
  3. Faithless Love
  4. Dark End of the Street
  5. Heart Like A Wheel
  6. When Will I Be Loved? [#2]
  7. Willin’
  8. I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)
  9. Keep Me From Blowin’ Away
  10. You Can Close Your Eyes

Heart Like A Wheel set up the formula that launched a superstar career. Asher and Ronstadt rounded up a collection of classic rock and R&B covers, songs written by her friends and contemporaries, and new songs suited to the country-pop flavor of the album from a variety of writers. The result was a smart, cohesive adventure in music. It was also a showcase for Ronstadt’s vocal power, showing off more range and depth than her previous solo work. Asher also brought in multi-instrumentalist Andrew Gold — who assisted with production on some tracks — and engineer Val Garay; the three would be mainstays of Ronstadt’s music for nearly a decade.

Things kick off in high fashion with a song Ronstadt and her band frequently used to close her live shows. You’re No Good is a smoldering song of romance gone wrong, a classic R&B track written by Clint Ballard and recorded a handful of times before Ronstadt perfected it. A very different sound than her previous more country-tinged tracks, it’s a smart choice and a great introduction to the disc. It also became her first big hit and her only Hot 100 chart-topper.

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore — another classic cover written by Paul Anka and made famous by Buddy Holly and the Crickets — is more like her earlier work, but sounds fresh and inviting after the strong lead-in. Souther’s Faithless Love is a great country-pop torch song with a charming arrangement and a passionate vocal. Pop chestnut Dark End of the Street finds new life with Ronstadt’s restrained vocal and sudden, urgent surges of sorrow. The title track is and inspired choice, a quirky, literate look at the challenges of love written by Anna McGarrigle. Ronstadt channels the distinctive energy of the song, adding a pop standard vocal that differs completely from the McGarrigle version, working just like a good cover should.

Side two opens with another classic song that became another big hit. The team transform the Everly Brothers’ quietly wistful When Will I Be Loved into a demand for the love the singer deserves. Short and powerful, it works nicely and shows of the clever sequencing of the album. Lowell George’s Willin’ is an even odder choice than the title track, a song about trucking written from a very masculine point of view. Ronstadt mines the essential humanity of the song, however, and the production is flawless. Up next is a tribute to one of her main influences, a solid cover of Hank William’s I Can’t Help It. Ronstadt offers a respectful interpretation, crafting an homage rather than a surprise, and it works well. Keep Me From Blowing Away is a lovely song of loss written by fellow Williams fan Paul Craft. It makes for a solid pairing.

Things wrap up with the gorgeous You Can Close Your Eyes. Written by James Taylor about his relationship with Joni Mitchell, it’s a modern lullaby of aching beauty. Taylor himself has recorded it solo and with both Mitchell and Carly Simon, and dozens of other artists have interpreted the song over the years. Ronstadt’s may be the finest approach, however, with the production discovering the hope in the sorrow, the possibility in the leaving. It’s a perfect way to wrap up a stunning album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Heart Like A Wheel matched the chart success of its lead single, becoming the first of Ronstadt’s three #1 albums. It propelled her to stardom, and over the course of the following decade she became one of the best-selling pop artists in the country. Her next six discs were fairly similar in approach, gradually taking on a more New Wave flavor as she entered the 80s. Since then, she’s offered up a variety of sounds, ranging from traditional Mexican music to pop standards to country-pop gems (often in collaboration with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris). She stopped recording in 2006, revealing in 2013 that Parkinson’s disease made singing difficult. All of her albums offer something charming. Besides Wheel, her most consistent album (and a sentimental favorite of mine) is 1982’s Get Closer. Hasten Down the Wind is a good showcase with some strong tracks, and Simple Dreams is her second-best pop-rock set. With 21 Top 40 hits, her chart career distills nicely. If you’re mostly interested in her radio material — which is solid but misses many of her finer moments — The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt is a solid collection.

Song of the Day, February 27: You’re No Good by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtnogoodToday’s song launched Linda Ronstadt’s career as the queen of the chart cover hit. After a solid start with the Stone Poneys, Ronstadt released a string of country-pop albums with moderate success. Her breakthrough album, Heart Like A Wheel, featured a broader mix of sounds tied together by the smart production work of Peter Asher.

As they were wrapping up the disc, Asher suggested that Ronstadt include a song that regularly closed her live shows. You’re No Good was written by Clint Ballard, Jr. in 1963, a soulful takedown of a no-good lover, with the singer recognizing the error of her ways taking up with such a cad. It was originally recorded by Dee Dee Warwick; Betty Everett had a Top 5 R&B hit with the song, and the Swinging Blue Jeans went Top 3 in the UK with their interpretation.

Asher and Ronstadt struggled to find the right sound for the song, scrapping the original recording in favor of a dark, haunting rendition. Regular collaborator Andrew Gold layered in moody guitar and keyboard work, and engineer Val Garay made the most of brooding strings arranged by Gregory Rose. Ronstadt turned in a much grittier vocal than usual, nicely suited to the lyrical content. The combined effort resulted in the finest version of the song and Ronstadt’s first Top 10 hit.

It went all the way to #1, setting the stage for a series of well-chosen covers released as Ronstadt singles over the years. In fact, 14 of her 21 Top 40 hits were chart singles for other artists first, although her versions often out-performed the originals.

Enjoy the magnificent moment of classic pop today.

Song of the Day, February 3: Poor Poor Pitiful Me by Warren Zevon (or Linda Ronstadt)

Today’s song is a surprisingly durable tale of woe. Warren Zevon wrote and recorded Poor, Poor Pitiful Me for his eponymous 1976 album. It’s one of the earliest examples of his wry, dark storytelling. The narrator recounts a series of mistakes, mishaps, and romantic missteps, lamenting the tragic impact of women on his life. Witty, bitter, and funny, it’s classic Zevon. It also features one of the best bizarre similes of all time, comparing a woman who mistreats him to both Jesse James and a Waring blender.

ronstadtpitifulLinda Ronstadt was an early admirer of Zevon’s writing, introduced to her by mutual friend Jackson Browne. She recorded a surprisingly effective version of the song for her #1 album Simple Dreams. She reversed the genders of the characters and toned down the verse that implies an S&M relationship, but otherwise stayed true to the spirit of the song. (She even kept the blender reference!) Ronstadt turned in a delightfully gritty performance, a standout in her catalog and a rare Top 40 hit for writer Zevon [#31, 1978].

Enjoy this wonderful song by its writer and a clever interpreter.

BONUS: For a dark, somewhat twisted tune, Poor, Poor Pitiful Me has had a remarkable number of cover versions. Terri Clark took her version, adapted from Ronstadt’s reading, into the Country Top 5 in 1996; somehow her chipper approach works. Longtime Zevon friend Jackson Browne, who produced the original recording, offered his interpretation on the Zevon tribute disc Enjoy Every Sandwich. He offers a pretty straight Zevon approach, with nice extra crunch added by the harmonies and lead guitar of Bonnie Raitt.

Song of the Day, December 30: Different Drum by the Stone Poneys

stonedrumToday’s song is a wonderful collaboration that launched a legendary career. After a semester of college, Linda Ronstadt decided to pursue a music career and moved to Los Angeles. She reconnected with a friend from Tuscon, Bobby Kimmel, who had begun collaborating with Kenny Edwards. The three shared a fondness for folk-tinged pop, and formed the Stone Poneys.

They released three albums in fifteen months, the second of which featured their lone single. Different Drum was written by Mike Nesmith before he joined the Monkees, and it’s a perfect fit for the Poneys. A song of romantic frustration and independent spirit, it finds magic in Ronstadt’s delivery. She retained the reference to her suitor as “pretty”, a nice twist that makes her declaration of the need to find herself even more powerful.

The trio split up after their third album. Kimmel became a successful folk musician, Edwards a strong pop presence who collaborated with many artists before his death in 2010. Ronstadt honed the folk-pop sound the Poneys had started and launched an impressive solo career, culminating with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

Enjoy this classic song today.

Song of the Day, January 22: Someone to Lay Down Beside Me by Linda Ronstadt

Linda_Ronstadt-Hasten_Down_The_WindToday’s song is Someone to Lay Down Beside Me by Linda Ronstadt. A magnificent singer and interpreter, Ronstadt has an uncanny knack for finding the perfect songs to record. As her career took off in the mid-70s, she also provided early American radio exposure to a number of songwriters including Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon. The latter provided the title track for her 1976 album Hasten Down the Wind. That album also included three numbers by a fine singer and songwriter, Karla Bonoff.

The finest of that trio is Someone to Lay Down Beside Me, one of Ronstadt’s best performances on disc. An aching song of need, it allows the singer to stretch into a near torch mode, passionately soaring from a whisper to a scream and back. It’s a perfect wrap-up to a strong album, leaving the listener wanting more as the last note fades.

But your love is a common occurrence
Not like love that I feel in my heart
Still you know that may be what I need

Is someone to lay down beside me
And even though it’s not real
Just someone to lay down beside me
You’re the story of my life

Enjoy this powerful song today.

BONUS: A year after Ronstadt recorded it, Bonoff included her own version of the song on her eponymous debut album.

Song of the Day, March 7: Telling Me Lies the Trio (originally by Linda Thompson)

Today’s song is Telling Me Lies by Linda Thompson and covered by the Trio. After divorce from husband Richard in 1982, Linda began the gradual work of assembling her first solo album. She wrote many of the tracks with Betsy Cook whom she had met through Gerry Rafferty when he was exchanging album work with Richard and Linda in the late 70s. Although many (including Linda herself) bemoan the heavy 80s production values, One Clear Moment is a strong album with many great songs. One of the true standouts is Telling Me Lies. Although it’s tempting to read it as autobiography (and perhaps a counterpoint to Richard’s She Twists the Knife Again from Across A Crowded Room, his album of the same year), it is a very universal song that fits easily into her catalog.

You told me you needed my company
And I believed in your flattering ways
Told me you needed me forever
Nearly gave you the rest of my days

Should’ve seen you for what you are
Should never have come back for more
Should’ve locked up all my silver
Brought the key back to your door

I cover my ears I close my eyes
Still hear your voice and it’s telling me lies
Telling me lies

The song took on new life in 1988 when Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt recorded a beautiful cover version for their album Trio. That recording went to #3 on the Country charts led to a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song and Linda Thompson’s only performance at a Grammy ceremony. (The song lost to Forever and Ever, Amen as performed by Randy Travis.) Copyright restrictions prevent the online availability of Linda’s brilliant original recording, so enjoy this video for the great Trio version today.

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