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Prisoner In Disguise
Linda Ronstadt

Asylum 7E 1045
Released: September 1975
Chart Peak: #4
Weeks Charted: 28
Certified Gold: 10/8/75

Linda RonstadtPrisoner in Disguise is an attempt to re-create the enormous critical and commercial success of Ronstadt's 1974 album, Heart like a Wheel. Unfortunately, while every choice on the previous album seemed inspired, these are largely pedestrian. As a parallel work, Prisoner operates at a distinct disadvantage to Heart; track by track, it is thoroughly and transparently inferior.

Part of the problem is Ronstadt's voice, a truly remarkable instrument which she has never learned to control. Ronstadt's long suit has never been her skill as an interpreter -- she is easily capable of misunderstanding even so straightforward a lyric as "Tracks of My Tears" -- and, where Peter Asher and Andrew Gold's arrangements on the earlier album made up for her failures of comprehension, here, on a much more difficult set of songs, they simply can't compensate.

Linda Ronstadt - Prisoner In Disguise
Original album advertising art.
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The most striking disparity is between the two old rock hits she chose to cover on Heart, the hit singles "You're No Good" and "When Will I Be Loved," and the pair she has selected here. Unlike the others, neither "Tracks of My Tears" nor "Heat Wave" is particularly well suited to Ronstadt's trembling, country-inflected soprano. Her reading of "Tracks"'s marvelous lyric is somnambulant, her "Heat Wave" taken far too fast -- it borders on hysteria. And the latter is burdened with a purposeless male chorus, as are several other tracks.

But even on material which is better suited to her voice, Ronstadt fails. For instance, her country classic for Prisoner is Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," which is neither easy to sing (as was Hank Williams's "I Can't Help It [If I'm Still in Love With You]" on the earlier album) nor unidentified with another singer's version. Ronstadt and Parton have similar voices and Ronstadt likes to play that up, but she lacks the distinctiveness of Parton's upper range. Similarly, while Ronstadt turned in a first-rate performance on Lowell George's renegade country classic "Willin'" on Wheel, she fills the niche here with his notably inferior "Roll Um Easy."

Of all the songs which directly parallel others on Heart, only J.D. Souther's title song is superior to his earlier effort. It is one of two extremely successful tracks, the other being Neil Young's simple chant, "Love Is a Rose." On both of these, she manages to catch the spirit. On songs which require more introspection, however, she is hopelessly at sea. It is difficult to imagine a more thorough misinterpretation than her "Many Rivers to Cross," but then, it is difficult to imagine anything sillier than Ronstadt singing reggae in the first place.

Although the success of Heart like a Wheel seemed to contradict it, my strongest impression of Linda Ronstadt, after hearing Prisoner in Disguise, is that she has a great voice and almost no idea of what to do with it. It's time for her producer and arranger to come up with a new approach.

- Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone, 11/20/75.

Bonus Reviews!

On Linda Ronstadt's new one, Prisoner in Disguise, she continues her collaboration with a heretofore unknown fellow named Andrew Gold (his is the spectacular guitar playing that graced her hit version of "When Will I Be Loved") who was obviously functioning as her musical director, and the collaboration was at times extraordinary. I would venture to say that Mr. Gold has assimilated the influence of the Beatles better than any other rock musician now before the public, British or American, and as a result her last album, Heart Like a Wheel, was the first Ronstadt album that sounded like the work of people who know how to make records, as opposed to just music. (There is a difference, you see, and unfortunately most of the country rockers Linda hangs out with don't understand that.)

Anyway, though Prisoner in Disguise has the usual problems (weak song selection, hackneyed back-ups), they are wonderfully mitigated whenever Andrew is center stage. I refer you to the album's major success, an absolutely incredible version of Jimmy Cliff's great "Many Rivers to Cross." Linda sings it nicely enough (though I still prefer Jimmy, who doesn't have the low-register problems she does), but Gold's guitar solo is stunning -- relentlessly logical the way George Harrison's were before he picked up the slide exclusively -- and it is followed by some of the most imaginative and economically placed background vocals (Gold's arrangements) I've heard since, um, Abbey Road, perhaps. Almost as good is "Heatwave," on which he does the one-man-band routine with spectacular results. This song is so overly familiar (there was a time when it was the must-do break tune for most bar bands) that it would seem impossible to breathe new life into it, let alone temporarily erase memories of the original, but with another magnificent guitar break and some really fine singing, these folks almost do it.

And I shouldn't slight Linda, of course. On Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," the album's other high point, her vocal (it is, wisely, the focus of the performance in this case) is absolutely gorgeous, full-bodied and intense in a way that made me think of Smokey Robinson's best moments (odd, because she also tackles his "Track of My Tears," and it defeats her).

The rest of the album is nothing much, the standard Hollywood c-&-w stuff that's been Linda's stock in trade from the beginning. There's a new Neil Young song that may or may not work when Neil gets around to doing it, but it strikes these ears as being a throwaway. There's also a Lowell George/Little Feat rocker, similarly forgettable; James Taylor's banal-beyond-belief "He Mister That's Me Up on the Jukebox" (what madness is it that makes otherwise intelligent people continue to record this tune?); and finally and most fatally, there are two songs by (you guessed it) J. D. Souther, utterly rotten, and rendered unlistenable in any case by the presence of their composer on guitar and harmony vocals.

All this has probably sounded a little sour, so let me end on a positive note. First of all, the good cuts here are so good that -- for me, anyway -- they more than justify the album's purchase. (That's for all you Eagles fans out there who, I've learned, usually go for Ms. Ronstadt as well.) Second -- and this is for you, Linda -- since you're obviously so good at singing great standard rock, r-&-b, and country songs, and since your friend Andrew is such an outstanding arranger of same, why don't you do a Pin Ups next time out? There are one hundred and three old songs I'd rather hear you singing than the bulk of what's on Prisoner in Disguise. I bet you know them all, and a few that haven't occurred to me yet as well. Think about it.

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 12/75.

Miss Ronstadt is fast on her way to becoming the best and most versatile contemporary female vocalist. Like most of the "overnight sensations" in the record business she has spent a decade recording and years before that in the clubs to reach her current status. Yet she is now at the point where she can handle a country melody, old soul rocker or ballad, a straight rocker, or a number of tunes that defy categorization with no ascertainable difficulty. Whether the songs are chosen by the singer or producer Peter Asher, the taste is nearly impeccable, with material from the likes of Dolly Parton, Jimmy Cliff, Neil Young, James Taylor, and the great Motown catalog. Asher's production is superb, but the star is Miss Ronstadt, who seems remarkably at home in whatever music she chooses to sing. This is most noticeable in country, where she seems totally comfortable. Hard to find a flaw here, on this simply handled (vocally and instrumentally), yet complex album. Best cuts: "Love Is A Rose," "Tracks Of My Tears," "Prisoner In Disguise," "Heat Wave," "The Sweetest Gift," "I Will Always Love You," "Silver Blue."

- Billboard, 1975.

I agree that this is a letdown after Heart Like a Wheel, but I wish someone could tell me why. Maybe the explanations are vague -- she's repeating a formula, she's not putting out, etc. -- because a singer like Ronstadt, who specializes in interpreting good songs rather than projecting a strong persona, must achieve an ineffable precision to succeed. But maybe it's simpler than that. People say her versions of "Tracks of My Tears" and "Heat Wave" are weak, but they're not -- they simply don't match the too familiar originals. "When Will I Be Loved?" and "You're No Good," on the other hand, were great songs half-remembered, kicking off each side of Heart Like a Wheel with a jolt to the memory. And this album could sure use a jolt of something. B

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Linda Ronstadt followed the commercial and critical breakthrough success of Heart Like A Wheel with Prisoner in Disguise, a record that essentially repeated the formula of its predecessor. While it lacked the consistency of Heart Like A Wheel, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, highlighted by sturdy remakes of the Motown classics "Tracks of My Tears" and "Heat Wave." * * * *

- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Heart Like a Wheel and Prisoner in Disguise exemplify Peter Asher's influential production style and Ronstadt's emotional brand of country-rock. In the poignant title tunes, memorable duets with Emmylou Harris and carefully chosen remakes (such as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Tracks of My Tears"), Ronstadt successfully walks the line dividing sadness from sappiness. * * * * *

- Elizabeth Lynch, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

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