Linda Ronstadt -- "Mad Love" (Asylum 5E-510).
Linda Ronstadt, the winning country-rock singer since her '60s start with the Stone Poneys, enters this decade with a new splash. While her "Mad Love" LP is full of calculated punkish ravings, overall, it's a sizzling new-wave tryout. She'll be in town for two sold-out shows Saturday at the Capital Centre with her new-found retinue of L.A. wavers, the Cretones.
Forget Linda's rollerskating image on the "Living in the U.S.A." LP. The new Ronstadt could pass for a Blondie understudy. She's revamped her style while retaining longtime producer Peter Asher for this new-wave debut. Sweet country harmonies are gone, replaced by often ambiguous ballads of punkdom. This is her boldest performance yet, and she seems comfortable in her pose as a disgruntled punk'n'roller.
The title cut has the driving energy of rock plus the tension of new wave, demanding insinuatingly, "Now you call me up and you're so cool, whadya whadya want me to do?" The blasting "mad love" refrain is a perfect showcase for her incredible scream-revenge. The theme, throughout the LP, is love as a powerful obsession: specifically, it's mad, it hurts, it costs.
The album is a masterful mix of old material and updated stylings. On "Hurt So Bad," Ronstadt trades on her hit-making specialty of reinventing old standards -- in this case, Little Anthony and the Imperials' 1965 tear-jerker. Ronstadt's final "oh no no" is positively desperate -- proof that producer Asher continues to brilliantly match Linda's voice to the public's nostalgia for early rock gems.
Another '60s cover, "I Can't Let Go," tracks layers of Ronstadt singing against herself. It's a pretentious technique when Streisand milks it, but Ronstadt pulls it off. Technically at least, the cut couldn't be tighter, with pounding bass and drum line. The song is shaped to fit new-wave requirements, but it's slick. It seems no matter how far she strays from tender ballads, Ronstadt will stay on the safely commercial side of punk outrage.
As usual, Ronstadt employs an impressive supporting cast. Mark Goldenberg, Cretone guitarist, wrote three of the best songs on the album -- the title cut, the pleading "Justine" and defiant "Cost of Love." His songs have pop hooks with new wave intensity, providing a focused if occasionally forced setting for Ronstadt's singing. Little Feat's Bill Payne makes a smooth transition from R&B/boogie to punkish keyboards on each cut. Even vocalists Nicolette Larson and Andrew Gold, who've made pop-country albums of their own, are effective backup wavers here.
The indirect beneficiary of Ronstadt's new venture is Elvis Costello. Three of his compositions are conspicuous on the LP. His uneven phrasing and mesmerizing melody on "Party Girl" are a challenge for Ronstadt. The lyrics are confused as she assumes the role of the party girl, altering the song's tone from accusatory to aloof. But the empty feeling comes through.
Similarly, Ronstadt's version of Costello's "Girls Talk" is more oblique than her old heartbreakers. When she sings "There are some things you can't cover up with lipstick and powder/Thought I heard you mention my name can't you talk any louder?" listeners search between the lines for a clue to the teenage gossip. It's a throbbing number with percussive and keyboard touches used sparingly to highlight her voice.
Ultimately the L.A. spit-and-polish that went into the production raises questions about the new-wave premise of the recording. For instance, on "Talking in the Dark," when Ronstadt sings "I tried again to drive myself insane . . ." there's none of the raw, nervous quality of Costello's original version; it's almost too smooth. It seems the crew, anticipating a platinum seller, mixed and remixed the cut in search of the perfect wave. The result, though, is a compelling assimilation of rough, tough verse into a snazzy album.
Even the "Mad Love" LP's graphics are a studied portrayal of alienation: a makeover of Ronstadt from "Different Drum" rocker, turned "Desperado" country girl, turned "poor poor pitiful" sex symbol, into today's celebrity punkster.
On "Party Girl," she sings, "maybe I'll never get over this change in style." But it's a safe bet she'll get over it in time for the next musical trend.