Back in the early ’60s, Phil Spector used to cloak the vocals of the Ronettes deep in his famous Wall of Sound. If you ever wondered how Ronnie (Spector) would sound without such overwhelming accompaniment, her latest disc would serve you well. Yes, there are backup singers and playing, but Ronnie’s vocals are front and center. There are many times when it is just her soloing, or just a few quiet instruments behind her. The results are surprising. Ronnie may not have a great voice from a technical standpoint. Her age shows in different ways; she sometimes warbles unnecessarily or stretches to hold a note that’s a little hard to keep. But that makes her more vulnerable and human.
The Ronettes were ruled by production. Songs such as “Be My Baby” almost seemed machine-made in their slick processing. Ronnie’s ability then was to offer a proud girl persona who embraced perfection: not a hair out of place on her distinctive hairstyle, not a wrong note or even the suggestion of one from her voice. In a time period when the forces in the industry and sadly, the general public, looked down on those where were black and a woman, Ronnie’s conceit served as a tonic slap in the face. She expressed overconfidence and dared the listener to find flaws-of which there were none.
Now Ronnie’s covering (mostly) the great British Invasion songbook, performing songs made famous by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Gerry and the Pacemakers, etc. These are acts she shared the bills with back in the Ronettes’ heyday. Like Ronnie’s music from that era, the originals by the Brits were brilliant pieces of pop. The new renditions have a more homemade appeal. The arrangements are simple to a fault. They let Ronnie’s voice shine through but do not do anything more than that. While Phil’s Wall of Sound may have somewhat hidden her talents, they also provided an aural framework that heightened the whole impact. Ronettes’ songs such as “Walking in the Rain” offered more pleasure than Ronnie’s voice alone (as wonderful as it was).
Therefore, those looking to find pristine versions of classic ’60s pop will be disappointed. Bettye LaVette’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook would serve you better. English Heart is for those who prefer their music less polished, an ironic role reversal considering the careers of the two great singers (Lavette’s early records were more raw than her music today}.
Each of the 11 tracks on Ronnie’s new album suggests someone who is lost. This is almost literal: she is a fool on one song (“On Me Oh My I’m a Fool for You Baby”), tired on another (“Tire of Waiting”), misunderstood on a third (“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”), etc. There are no happy songs. The closest is the Dave Clark Five song “Because” as it promises that if given one kiss, she will be happy. However, she never gets the kiss, just the anticipation of one. Happy seems an exaggeration because we all know that love hurts, and the singer constantly proclaims her affection that may be unrequited for all we know.
Perhaps that is why the best song, and last cut on the album, is the saddest one (and the only one not to be from the British Invasion). Spector clumsily takes on the Bee Gees “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”, and in this case clumsy is a compliment. The song’s narrator has been destroyed by love. When she talk/sings the intro, “I can think of younger days when living for my life…”, her trembling voice reveals the experience of age (“misty memories of days gone by”). The organ accompaniment gives the song a gospel feel, as if she’s praying to a higher power to help restore her ability to love. The original by the Bee Gees with its tight and expressive vocal harmonies showed the influence of the Ronettes and Phil Spector’s glistening Wall of Sound production. Al Green also did a notable soulful version that was impeccable in terms of Willie Mitchell’s studio wizardry and Green’s fabulous singing. Ronnie brings the song back to Earth by sounding as a soul who has known the pain of love. Her rendition may not be perfect, but it seems more honest and real. That can be said about all the covers on the new album.