October 1, 2008
Prisoner in Disguise
(Original Master Recording)
Anyone looking for the prototype of the modern female country singer can turn their attention to Linda Ronstadt’s classic 1975 album Prisoner in Disguise. Of all of her seminal albums from the seventies, it is this one that best illustrates her groundbreaking fusion of country, rock and pop. It’s a collection of songs culled from all over the musical map, with contributions from writers as diverse as Neil Young, Dolly Parton and Jimmy Cliff.
But it isn’t diversity for its own sake, and Ronstadt doesn’t simply record the songs in the style they were originally presented. Instead, she adapts the songs to her own vision, resulting in some stunning performances. She was savvy enough to pick up on the transcendance of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”, which she sings as a simple piano ballad that showcases her vocals. Neil Young’s “Love is a Rose” is turned into a bluegrass romp, the sonic cloth from which Patty Loveless would weave the bulk of her own classic album, When Fallen Angels Fly.
Hearing Prisoner in Disguise decades later, it is obvious just how influential Ronstadt’s approach to production and selection of material was on the work of Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis and Suzy Bogguss. This album came a good two years before Ronstadt’s more vocally adventurous records, though those overpowering performances would do some influencing of their own. Listen to “Blue Bayou” and you’ll find out pretty quickly where Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood learned how to whisper the verses and belt the choruses.
But Prisoner captures Ronstadt at her country-rock artistic peak, and this new audiophile release is a revelation. A major source of frustration for Ronstadt aficiandos is that most of her classic albums from the seventies were on Elektra, and they have done a shoddy job of managing her catalog. If you’ve only heard the original CD release of Prisoner in Disguise, as I had before this reissue, you haven’t really heard it at all.
The original CD pushed Ronstadt’s vocals up to the front, and the music behind her is a muddy, cluttered mess. The audiophile CD is from the original master, and the sound is absolutely exquisite. The musicianship behind her is masterful, and you can now hear how Ronstadt used her voice as an intertwining instrument. Hearing Herb Pedersen’s banjo on “Love is a Rose” alone makes this set worth its premium asking price. Fans who’ve already savored Emmylou Harris’ harmony vocal on “The Sweetest Gift” can now hear the intricate acoustic guitar work on the track by Andrew Gold and James Taylor.
This is a limited-edition release, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s the only way to hear this seminal album in the way that it was intended, and the regular issue of it is so inferior to this that it borders on travesty. The only quibble I have is with the packaging, which faithfully recreates the LP release but features no liner notes retrospectively discussing the record. Hopefully, a similar release of Hasten Down the Wind will follow.