Linda Ronstadt / Heart Like A Wheel – Truly a Country Rock Masterpiece

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  • With Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades or close to them, this copy was giving us KILLER sound for Linda Ronstadt’s Best Album
  • Both sides here are rich, full-bodied and warm, with harmonically rich guitars and real immediacy to Linda’s heartfelt vocals
  • A Must Own Classic, the best album Ms Ronstadt ever made, and a True Country Rock Masterpiece virtually without peer
  • 5 stars: “What really makes HLAW a breakthrough is the inventive arrangements that producer Peter Asher, Ronstadt, and the studio musicians have developed. …[they] help turn Heart Like a Wheel into a veritable catalog of Californian soft rock, and it stands as a landmark of ’70s mainstream pop/rock.”

I’ve been playing HLAW since the year it came out, roughly 46 years by my calculation, and I can tell you it is no easy task to find this kind of smooth, sweet, analog sound on the album. Folks, we heard it for ourselves: the Heart Like A Wheel magic is here on practically every song.

Pay special attention to Andrew Gold’s Abbey Road-ish guitars heard throughout the album. He is all over this record, playing piano, guitar, percussion and singing in the background. If anybody deserves credit besides Linda for the success of HLAW, it’s Andrew Gold.

A key test on either side was to listen to all the multi-tracked guitars and see how easy it was to separate each of them out in the mix. Most of the time they are just one big jangly blur. The best copies let you hear how many guitars there are and what each of them is doing.

What the best sides of Ronstadt’s Country Rock Masterpiece have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1974
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the vocals, guitars (acoustic, electric, pedal steel) and drums having the correct sound for this kind of recording
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional space of the studio

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

What We’re Listening For on Heart Like A Wheel

Less grit – smoother and sweeter sound, something that is not easy to come by on Exile.

A bigger presentation – more size, more space, more room for all the instruments and voices to occupy. The bigger the speakers you have to play this record the better.

More bass and tighter bass. This is fundamentally a pure rock record. It needs weight down low to rock the way the engineers wanted it to.

Present, breathy vocals. A veiled midrange is the rule, not the exception.

Good top end extension to reproduce the harmonics of the instruments and details of the recording including the studio ambience.

Last but not least, balance. All the elements from top to bottom should be heard in harmony with each other. Take our word for it, assuming you haven’t played a pile of these yourself, balance is not that easy to find.

Our best copies will have it though, of that there is no doubt.

Not only is it hard to find great copies of this album, it ain’t easy to play ’em either. You’re going to need a hi-res, super low distortion front end with careful adjustment of your arm in every area — VTA, tracking weight, azimuth and anti-skate — in order to play this album properly. If you’ve got the goods you’re gonna love the way this copy sounds. Play it with a budget cart / table / arm and you’re likely to hear a great deal less magic than we did.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

You’re No Good

Right from the git-go, if the opening drum and bass intro on this one doesn’t get your foot tapping, something definitely ain’t right. Check to make sure your stereo is working up to par with a record you know well. If it is, your copy of HLAW belongs on the reject pile along with the other 90% of the copies ever pressed.

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore

Amazing acoustic guitars! Lots of tubey magic for a mid-’70s pop album. And just listen to the breathy quality of Linda’s voice. She’s swimming in echo, but it’s a good kind of echo. Being able to hear so much of it tells you that your pressing is one of the few with tremendous transparency and high resolution.

Faithless Love

Another superb arrangement with excellent sound. The banjo that opens this track is key — the picking should have a very strong plucky quality, with lovely trailing harmonics, even some fret buzz. So many copies are veiled or blunted sounding; this clearly demonstrates a lack of transient information. The copies without the trailing harmonics lack resolution. Once you hear either of these problems on the banjo, you can be sure to find them on the voices and guitars throughout the side.

That the Cisco pressing doesn’t do a very good job with the banjo should be clear for all to hear. If you want the sound of the real thing only the best Capitol pressings are going to give it to you.

The Dark End of the Street

We love the meaty, dark and distorted guitars at the opening of this one; really sets the tone.

Heart Like a Wheel

Side Two

When Will I Be Loved?

This presumptive Hit Single has lots of multi-tracked instruments crammed into its mix, a mix which is ready for radio and plenty processed and compressed to suit the Top 40 format. What that means for us audiophiles is not that the sound will be bad, rather that it will have a set of sonic characteristics in common with most of the original pressings: a little grit, yes, that is to be expected, but what one hears more often than not is a murky, dark, muddy quality to the midrange.

It’s the rare copy that presents a breathy, present , clear Linda Ronstadt on this track. Which is why it’s a great test track. If this track sounds right you can be pretty sure that everything that follows will too (up to a point naturally).

Willin’
I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)

This track has the lovely and talented Emmylou Harris on harmony vocal. Between her and Linda cthere is a great deal of midrange and upper midrange energy on this track which will tend to strain on most copies.

Is that strain the result of bad mastering? Bad pressing quality? Bad vinyl? Some combination of all three? No one can say, and what difference does it make anyway? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The proof of a good sounding side two is right there on track three. If there’s anything unnatural in the midrange, this song will not be a pleasant listening experience for you, dear reader.

Keep Me from Blowing Away

Linda’s voice here is sweet as honey. On the best copies this one should sound transparent and quite natural. Linda excels at this kind of song, but she stopped doing material like this soon after this album came out. That’s about the time I lost interest in her.

You Can Close Your Eyes

This is one of my all time favorite James Taylor songs. Linda does a lovely version of it here over a superb arrangement with top quality audiophile sound to match. What a great ending for the album, with her old buddies The Eagles backing her up. It takes this brilliant album out on a high note.

AMG Review

Following the same formula as her early records, Heart Like a Wheel doesn’t appear to be a great breakthrough on the surface. However, Ronstadt comes into her own on this mix of oldies and contemporary classics. Backed by a fleet of Los Angeles musicians, Ronstadt sings with vigor and passion, helping bring the music alive. But what really makes Heart Like a Wheel a breakthrough is the inventive arrangements that producer Peter Asher, Ronstadt, and the studio musicians have developed. Finding the right note for each song — whether it’s the soulful reworking of “When Will I Be Loved,” the hit “You’re No Good,” or the laid-back folk-rock of “Willing” — the musicians help turn Heart Like a Wheel into a veritable catalog of Californian soft rock, and it stands as a landmark of ’70s mainstream pop/rock.

Val Garay & Dave Hassinger

Kudos once again must go to VAL GARAY, the co-engineer here with Dave Hassinger (who owns The Sound Factory where the album was recorded). Garay is the man behind many of our favorite recordings:

James Taylor’s JT (a Top 100 title)
Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams (also a Top 100 title)
Andrew Gold’s Eponymous Debut
Linda Ronstadt’s Prisoner In Disguise

They all share his trademark super-punchy, jump-out-the-speakers, rich and smooth ANALOG sound. With BIG drums — can’t forget those. (To be clear, only the best copies share it. Most copies only hint at it.)

I don’t think Mr Garay gets anything like his due with audiophiles and the reviewers who write for them. This is a shame; the guy makes Demo Disc Quality Pop Records about as good as those kinds of records can be made. If you have a Big System that really rocks you owe it to yourself to get to know his work. This is truly a KNOCKOUT disc if you have the equipment for it. We do, and it’s records like this that make the effort and expense of building a full-range dynamic system worthwhile.

To be fair, Heart Like a Wheel is never going to make anybody’s Top 100 Greatest Sounding Rock Records list, and certainly not ours. The other records we mention above clearly sound better than HLAW. Did Garay engineer better sounding recordings as he gained studio experience? Was Hassinger’s role helpful or hurtful? How about Peter Asher’s contribution? Did The Record Plant have better equipment by the time Prisoner in Disguise was recorded in 1975?

These questions will probably never be answered. The one thing we do know is that HLAW is not the equal of the better Ronstadt’s and the killer James Taylor recordings that came along later in the decade.

Masterpieces & Desert Island Discs

Musically, for Ronstadt, yes, the album is clearly her Masterpiece, a Hot Stamper copy of which deserves a place in every right-thinking audiophile’s collection.

It’s also a Desert Island Disc for yours truly. For a record to come to my desert island:

1) The record must have been played enthusiastically, fanatically even, at some time during my fifty plus years as a music lover and audio hobbyist, causing me to feel what Leonard Bernstein called “the joy of music;”

2) My sixty-something-year-old self must still have great respect for the album, and;

3) I must believe I will still want to listen to the album fairly often and well into the future (not knowing how long I may be stranded on the island).

How many records meet the Desert Island Disc criteria? Certainly many more than you can see when you click on the link, but new titles are constantly being added as time permits.


Here are some Hot Stamper pressings of Desert Island Discs you can actually buy with Hot Stampers.

Here are some Hot Stamper pressings of what we consider to be Masterpieces that you can actually buy with Hot Stampers.

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