Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Aristocrats: King of Bohemia

Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy

Linda Ronstadt: King of Bohemia


Linda Ronstadt became a pop star in the 1970s, and mined her pop-country rock sound until the early 80s. But popular tastes veered in other directions, and Ronstadt began to see her commercial appeal recede. So, in 1983, she took a risk, and recorded an album of standards with Nelson Riddle, who had made his name thirty years earlier, as Frank Sinatra’s arranger. Surprisingly, Ronstadt’s risk payed off, resulting in her most popular album in five years. From that point on, Ronstadt’s career has consisted of periodic attempts to record another hit, mixed with albums that she recorded for the shear joy of the music. While she has never had another huge hit with any of the material of the sort that first made her famous, her “shear joy” albums have resulted in some of her finest artistic achievements. It’s just a shame that more people aren’t listening.

The most recent of these “shear joy” albums was Adieu False Heart, recorded with the wonderful Cajun musician, Ann Savoy. “King of Bohemia” is the only song on the album that features Ronstadt without Savoy, but its approach is consistent with the rest of the album. The song is a cover of a Richard Thompson tune, and Ronstadt preserves in her version the one line that is gender-specific, (“With your rich girl rags and all.”) It’s not at all clear to me where the title comes from, and without it, it’s pretty hard to shoehorn this song into this week’s theme, but I really wanted present this.

Richard Thompson: King of Bohemia


It’s not usually my habit to present two songs by the same artist in different posts in the same week, but I wanted to make a case for Linda Ronstadt’s artistry. To my ears, Thompson’s original version sounds like an unfinished demo. The rhythm is choppy, the spare arrangement sounds like it needs the rest of the band, even the vocal seems uncertain, as if Thompson wanted to go back later and finish it, but never got the chance.

Linda Ronstadt took this “demo”, and found the rest of the song. Her arrangement and vocal found a perfect match for the emotion of Thompson’s words. And the result is a thing of beauty.

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