Tag Archives: Essentials

The Essentials: Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

It’s an album so good that I’ve bought it multiple times – first on vinyl, then CD, then via the two-CD The Best of Linda Ronstadt: The Capitol Years, which actually contains her four Capitol albums in full (plus a handful of bonus tracks), then on high-resolution (24/192) and now, for a second time, vinyl – though this last time it was a Christmas gift from my wife, so perhaps I shouldn’t count it.

In any event, it’s Linda’s greatest work.

Even that young (now old) curmudgeon Dave Marsh, in the (blue) Rolling Stone Record Guide, had nice things to say about it – after calling her “at best a competent craftsman, and at worst an empty-headed, soulless dispenser of music as sheer commodity,” that is. (Side note: I recall reading those words – and similar criticisms Marsh leveled against other artists I like[d] – in the early ‘80s and thinking he must have a hearing impairment. Because we certainly weren’t hearing the same thing.) To the point: Of this album, the first Ronstadt LP produced by Peter Asher, Marsh writes that her “voice was finally pitted against fine material and pushed to convey some of the spirit as well as the outline of the songs. ‘You’re No Good’ and ‘When Will I Be Loved’ actually are better than the Betty Everett and Everly Brothers originals, and the title song, written by Anna McGarrigle, represents Ronstadt’s first important discovery of a new writer.”

Now, I happen to like Linda’s earlier efforts. To my ears, they’re solid efforts accented by moments of sheer grace – her rendition of Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me on the Water,” from her eponymous third LP, is the best example. But Heart Like a Wheel is when she found her voice. She may not have written the songs, but she sure sounds – to me, at least – as if she’s lived them. The performances are letter-note perfect, passionate and dramatic, beginning with the album’s opening cut.

Other highlights include “It Doesn’t Matter Any More”…

…“Dark End of the Street”…

…the title cut…

…”When Will I Be Loved”…

…and “Willin’.”

And thus began a streak of LPs that helped define the 1970s, including such gems as Prisoner in Disguise, Hasten Down the Wind, Simple Dreams and Living in the USA. They all followed the pattern Asher and Ronstadt implemented so well on Heart – well-chosen oldies alongside songs from up-and-coming singer-songwriters. Each of those albums is worth picking up. But none sparkle as much as this gem.

Side 1:

  1. You’re No Good
  2. It Doesn’t Matter Any More
  3. Faithless Love
  4. Dark End of the Street
  5. Heart Like a Wheel

Side 2:

  1. When Will I Be Loved
  2. Willin’
  3. I Can’t Help If I’m Still in Love With You
  4. Keep Me From Blowin’ Away
  5. You Can Close Your Eyes

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The Essentials: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Broken Arrow

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

In early 1996, a few months after the passing of fellow traveler David Briggs (1944-95), Neil saddled up the Horse and took it for a much-needed ride. The result: Broken Arrow, which was released on July 2nd of that year. It’s an oft-overlooked gem, overshadowed for some by the classics that immediately preceded it (Freedom, Ragged Glory, Weld, Harvest Moon, Sleeps With Angels and Mirror Ball) and unknown to many younger fans simply because…well, where does one begin with such a prolific artist?

That said, it’s one of my favorites by Neil. It’s somber, reflective and celebratory, essentially the grieving process set to song. It’s hypnotic. But rather than delve deep into its grooves, as I often do with my Essentials, I thought I’d share my original review of the album, written not long after its release…

First listen: Long, loping songs (“Big Time,” “Loose Change,” “Slip Away”) with thick guitars reverberating ad infinitum, seemingly nothing more than retreads of themes previously visited on numerous Neil & CH classics. Throw in shorter tunes (“Scattered,” “This Town,” “Music Arcade”) that, again, echo past classics and even previous tracks, plus a conclusion (a cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do”) that sounds like it was copped from a bad-sounding bootleg. Short and sweet review: Mediocre.

Second listen: Gets better. The long, loping songs are still long and, yes, they still lope. But “Big Time,” “Slip Away,” “Loose Change” and “Scattered” possess hypnotic, near narcotic qualities that circulate and percolate through the mind long after the music has stopped. Lyrically, the songs make a fitting tribute to the late David Briggs, Neil’s longtime producer and friend: “I’m still living the dream we had/for me it’s not over.”

Third, then fourth, fifth and sixth listens, all played LOUD: The chords cleanse the soul. “Music Arcade” has proven itself an acoustic gem that serves as this album’s piece de resistance, featuring an impassioned, hushed vocal: “I was walking down Main Street … dodgin’ traffic with flyin’ feet/ that’s how good I felt.” And that bad-sounding, bootleg-esque ending? Guess what? It works. After a while you forgive the bad sound and just get into the groove…and, man, what a groove! (A+)

The songs:

  1. Big Time
  2. Loose Change
  3. Slip Away
  4. Changing Highways
  5. Scattered (Let’s Think About Livin’)
  6. This Town
  7. Music Arcade
  8. Baby What You Want Me to Do

The Essentials: Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – I Love Rock ’n Roll

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

The pages of history textbooks are filled will legions of folks who shaped the world, but – academia being what it is – many important people receive cursory mentions or none at all. Like Joan Jett.

Don’t get me wrong – there were important women rockers before her, and any music fan worth his or her salt should be able to list them – and she shared space in the record racks and ink in the rock magazines with a number of equally important contemporaries, albeit ones who were blazing trails in different genres. But few, male or female, rocked as consistently hard and steady as Joan Jett during the ’80s. Beginning with the I Love Rock ’n Roll album, which was released on November 18th, 1981, she taught a generation of gals and guys that either gender could make like Chuck Berry.

It was a long time coming, of course. She first dented the door to the men’s room that was rock ’n’ roll in the mid-1970s with the Runaways, though – success in Japan aside – they never transcended to popular acclaim. Her first solo album in 1980, originally a self-titled release before being rechristened Bad Reputation in January 1981, did achieve greatness – but few heard it. She finally kicked down the door in early 1982 with help from MTV, and the video for the chart-topping title track to her second LP. (Rock radio, at least in my neck of the woods, ignored her until then.)

The song, as the album as a whole, mixes elements of new wave, punk, glam rock and old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll into a delectable whole. It’s hot, heavy, loud and gritty or, as my mother-in-law might say, “it’s rough, it’s tough, and it’s got the stuff.”

The cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson & Clover,” which peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard charts, is equally audacious.

It’s also the album’s slowest song.

What makes an album great – and essential – isn’t any one song, of course, though some may be better than others. It’s the album in total. And in the case of I Love Rock n’ Roll, that means the other eight tracks on the LP – and they’re as solid as the two singles. What teenager (or adult, for that matter) couldn’t identify with “Victim of Circumstance”?

And who hasn’t known a “Nag”?

Like the title track, “Crimson & Clover” and several others on the LP, it’s a cover song, in this case one by a doo-wop group called the Haloes, who had a No. 25 hit with it in 1961. One of the other covers is one of Joan’s own, the Runaways’ “You’re Too Possessive” (from that band’s overlooked 1977 Waitin’ for the Night album):

There’s also the original “(I’m Gonna) Run Away”…

…and “Love Is Pain”:

On the original pressing of the LP (which I had), there was this Christmas treat –

After the holidays, Boardwalk replaced it with Joan’s own “Oh Woe Is Me,” which had been the b-side to “Crimson & Clover.”

The success of the album, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, led to a resurgence of interest for Bad Reputation, and paved the way for her strong third and fourth albums, Album (1983) and Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth (1984). True, they followed a similar pattern – a mix of killer new songs and choice covers – but it’s a pattern that didn’t grow old then, and doesn’t sound old now when or if you listen to them.

Side 1:

  1. I Love Rock ’n Roll
  2. (I’m Gonna) Run Away
  3. Love Is Pain
  4. Nag
  5. Crimson & Clover

Side 2:

  1. Victim of Circumstance
  2. Bits and Pieces
  3. Be Straight
  4. You’re Too Possessive
  5. Little Drummer Boy