Ronee Blakley,
Ronee Blakley
(Elektra, 1972;
Collectors' Choice, 2006)

From this distance Ronee Blakley is a brief pop-culture footnote. She was famous long ago, in 1975 specifically, when she toured with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue and took a major role in the late Robert Altman's much-admired Nashville, where she played -- memorably -- a troubled country singer named Barbara Jean (loosely based, I've always assumed, on Loretta Lynn). She also sang on Dylan's 1976 album Desire and went on two years later to portray his spouse in the notoriously unwatchable film/vanity project Renaldo & Clara, which Dylan -- forgettably -- wrote and directed. She worked in movies and television until the mid-1980s, then dropped out of public view. In the time that this album, her first of two, captures her, she was an Idaho-born, California-based singer-songwriter dreaming of the big time.

Over the course of my life, I have listened to plenty of music, enough to have figured out that while multitudes of objectively lousy to mediocre recordings do indeed cheapen our lives, sometimes what a piece of music is doing to us is simply tangled up in the mystery of our own tastes. Either something sounds pleasing to your own particular ear, or it doesn't, and somebody with perfectly respectable, developed tastes may be passionate about something whose appeal baffles you, or the reverse. It is hardly inconceivable to me that some smart listener, maybe one smarter than I am, would find Ronee Blakley's work a more rewarding enterprise than I am able to judge it.

But since I can speak only for myself, I shall permit myself to state why, finding little musical warmth here, I am left cold. Here is why I shiver:

I hold, to start with, ambivalent feelings about the singer-songwriter profession itself, which I think to be practiced by many more laborers than possess the requisite skills for the job. They're producing a whole lot more songs than the world needs, and an unconscionable amount of lackluster product is coming off the assembly line. Most compositions have no pressing reason to exist. Every good song has a reason to be, beyond satisfaction of ego or bank account. Or if a good song actually has no pressing reason to exist, dammit, the composer at least ought to have the pride and the chops to fake it honorably.

As a matter of principle, moreover, I detest 1970s California singer-songwriters, who to me personify witless, rootless narcissism and whose influence ever since has been nothing but baleful. And I should add that I am not, never have been and never will be a fan of Joan Baez's singing, and on top of that, I have harbored a longstanding, withering disdain for the overproduced, directionless post-folk-revival albums she recorded in the 1970s. My idea of hell is exposure to that song she wrote about getting a phone call from Dylan. As I type, I shudder at the thought.

Unfortunately, this album falls on the wrong side of every one of the above-stated prejudices. Blakley's singing grates Baezically, and the production is intrusive, bombastic and dated in an irritatingly LA-pop sort of way. Her songs don't seem to be going anywhere, and "Fred Hampton," about the real-life Black Panther murdered (not in overheated, politicized rhetoric but in prosaic, tragic fact) by the Chicago police in December 1969, is a dumb, clumsy song on a subject that deserved better. The arrangements and melodies are an uneasy, unconvincing, ill-conceived mishmash of folk, gospel, pop and art song.

On the other hand, I could be wrong.

by Jerome Clark
17 March 2007

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