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Living in the USA
Linda Ronstadt

Asylum 155
Released: September 1978
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 32
Certified Platinum: 9/22/78

Linda RonstadtLinda Ronstadt's new album Living in the USA is not only one heck of a good record, but a really heartening sign that Linda is toughening up her act. Growing, even. Realizing that there is more to life than waxing aren't-we-all-tragic-victims laments over Lost Love for college girls weeping in their dorm rooms, she has taken a number of enormous chances with her song selection this time out, for which she would deserve enormous credit even if the results weren't so successful. Fact is, this is the first record she has made in what seems like ages that has, if you'll pardon the euphemism, glands.

Not that everything works, of course. Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA," for example, is treated rather stiffly by the band (the secret is that good rock-and-roll swings, guys), although Linda has Chuck's sly, drawling phrasing down to a tee; and the resurrection of Sigmund Romberg's (!) "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" seems at best ill-advised, despite a technically spectacular vocal workout. But she's testing her limits, which in the past she has been somewhat reluctant to do. After all, she could sing Eric Kaz L.A. archetypes in her sleep -- and does again here, with the forgettable, predictable "Blowing Away" -- but most of the rest of Living is a lot more challenging, both for the listener and for her.

Case in point: Smokey Robinson's "Ooh Baby Baby," which in the original is one of the most gut-wrenching, tour-de-force vocal performances ever. Linda ain't Smokey, but she gives him a run for his money, and the starkness of Asher's production for once has the effect of framing the naked emotionality of her singing in a legitimately affecting way. This is strong stuff, and it shows up some of the facile emoting she's dispensed in the past for the high-class MOR it really was. Even a marvelous old r-&-b chestnut like "Just One Look" benefits from this ambitious intensity: she could have done it as jauntily as her Buddy Holly covers, but it emerges instead with a sense of desperate longing that the lyrics only hint at.

But the real stunners are the totally unexpected, left-field songs. The first is Elvis Costello's "Alison," dressed up here with a surprisingly evocative Springsteenish sax break. Costello's lyrical vision couldn't be further away from Ronstadt's usual toujours l'amour approach; in fact, "Alison," pretty as it is, is one of the nastiest love songs ever written. But not only does she sing it as if she means it (there's a falsetto note and the end that will curl your hair), she effectively and intelligently transforms it into a Woman's Song. The larger question her version raises -- whether its becoming a hit single (it should) would amount to a co-opting of the New Wave -- I will leave it to pop theorists. For my money it is one hell of a performance; it may even be better than the original.

So is the other triumph here, Warren Zevon's majestic and mysterious "Mohammed's Radio." The band, driven by Waddy Wachtel (he may yet turn into Linda's Keith Richards), gives this one everything, playing with enormous passion and bite. In the end, however, the song belongs to Linda, who rides over the whole thing magnificently, giving a resonance to the lyrics that Zevon's own merely serviceable Marlboro Country voice never could. If there is any justice in this world, it will become her signature tune.

I'm not suggesting that Living in the USA is any kind of classic, but its best moments are as tough and uncompromising as they are surprising, and that's what rock is supposed to be about. What's really nice about this is that it strikes another blow for solidarity: it won't alienate her old fans, and it could well win her some new ones. With the Eighties closing in fast, and the biggest rock stars of the day making utter fools of themselves (as anyone who has witnessed the Sgt. Pepper disaster can attest), we need the kind of musical heroes and heroines who can reassure us that we're all -- Old and New Wavers alike -- in this thing together. Get up there on that pedestal, Linda!

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 12/78.

Bonus Reviews!

Aside from being one of Linda Ronstadt's more perfect albums, this collection of 10 songs ranging from Hammerstein/Romberg's "When I Grow Too Old To Dream," to Elvis Costello's "Alison" provides a unique display of her vocal charm. The instrumentation, for the most part, is sparse, and it enables the special qualities of Ronstadt's voice to shine through. There are many moods portrayed here, including some husky ones that indicate maturity and a broadening taste, although Ronstadt has always chosen material beyond the merely popular. "All That You Dream" is a classic and could be her biggest song so far. Best cuts: "All That You Dream," "Back In The USA," "Mohammed's Radio," "Just One Look," "Love Me Tender," "Alison."

- Billboard, 1978.

This one divides right down the middle. The last four covers on the second side are so clumsy that I may never again hear the opener, Little Feat's "All That You Dream." But do kind of like the first side, specifically including the forced intensity of the Chuck Berry and Doris Troy remakes. Only on "Alison," though, does she enrich what she interprets. B

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

Linda Ronstadt made the ill-advised move to incorporate some current musical trends, such as new wave, into her successful formula. While some of the record sounds good, the majority of the album is poorly executed, particularly her take on Elvis Costello's "Alison." * * *

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

Following the success of Simple Dreams, Linda Ronstadt was on top of the world. On April 3, 1978, the film FM premiered with Ronstadt featured performing a cover version of Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender." The song was also featured in Living in the USA, which like Ronstadt's previous hit albums featured a mix of covers of proven hits and newer compositions by some of Ronstadt's favorite singers.

Yet there were changes evident as well. For one, as the album's cover photo showed, Ronstadt had cut her trademark long hair. She also traded in her usual country-style dresses for hot pants, and her high heels for roller skates.

Living in the USA was recorded at the Sound Factory in Los Angeles form May 5 through July 3, 1978. "I remember I wanted to bring my roller skates into the studio," Ronstadt says. "My friend Nicolette Larson and I used to skate everywhere. She used to bring her skates into the studio because it was really big and she could skate around between takes. My studio wasn't that big. It had too much carpet, so I wanted them to take it out so I could skate."

While Ronstadt paid tribute to the King with a cover of "Love Me Tender," she also acknowledged the influence of the burgeoning British new wave movement by covering the other Elvis. "Allison" had first appeared on Elvis Costello's debut LP, My Aim Is True, and remains his best-known tune today. "I had a friend at the time and that song reminded me of her, so I sang it for her," Ronstadt says. "She was a really sweet girl, but kind of a party-girl type. I felt like she needed somebody to talk to her in a stern voice, because she was getting married and she would have to change." Ronstadt's version was released as a single in the U.K. but stalled at number 66, and was dismissed in interviews by the acid-tongued Costello. (Nevertheless, Ronstadt's 1980 album Mad Love would include three songs by Costello.)

Although Ronstadt's attempt at new wave wasn't initially a commercial success, she continued to score with her updates of oldies. The album's first single, a remake of Chuck Berry's "Back in the U.S.A," climbed to number 16. A take of Doris Troy's "Just One Look" stalled at number 44, but Ronstadt wasn't happy with the recorded version. "It took me years to learn how to really sing that, but I could nail it now," she says, 15 years later.

The biggest hit from Living in the USA was Ronstadt's cover of Smokey Robinson's "Ooh Baby Baby," which climbed to number seven. "We used a live vocal from the rough mix," Ronstadt says. "We tried to go in and add things to it, but it never sounded as good as that live vocal."

- Craig Rosen, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, 1996.

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