We’ve criticized the engineer George Massenburg in the past, but with this copy we almost want to take it all back.
What he gets right on this recording is the sound of an orchestra, augmented with various jazz musicians (Ray Brown, Tommy Tedesco, Plas Johnson, Bob Cooper), all performing live in a huge studio.
The sound stretches far to Linda’s left, far to her right, as well as back far behind her in a huge semi-circle. She is of course singing in a vocal booth, with her vocal placed front and center in the soundstage.
What to Listen for
That’s easy on this album: the strings. When the strings are big and rich, not shrill and thin, that’s a good thing. Rosiny texture means you have a copy with less smear and higher resolution. Harmonics up top means that the top end of your copy is extending properly.
Bottom line: If the strings are bad on this album probably everything else is too.
Here are some records that are good for testing string tone and texture.
Having said that, this is an album of standards sung by a woman with a very recognizable voice. If Linda doesn’t sound right, what’s the point of the record? To hear Nelson Riddle’s well-recorded strings?
The best copies have Linda sounding rich and breathy. Few managed to pull off that particular trick as well as we would have liked. We took major points off for those copies that had her sounding too thin or forced in her upper range.
I’ve Got a Crush on You
Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry
Crazy He Calls Me
Someone to Watch over Me
I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You
What’ll I Do?
Stephen Holden of the New York Times noted the significance of the album to popular culture when he wrote that What’s New “isn’t the first album by a rock singer to pay tribute to the golden age of the pop, but is … the best and most serious attempt to rehabilitate an idea of pop that Beatlemania and the mass marketing of rock LP’s for teen-agers undid in the mid-60’s. In the decade prior to Beatlemania, most of the great band singers and crooners of the 40’s and 50’s codified a half-century of American pop standards on dozens of albums, many of them now long out-of-print.”
The album spawned a major change in popular culture because Ronstadt was then considered the leading female vocalist of the ‘Rock’ era. Both her record company and manager, Peter Asher, were very reluctant in producing this album with Ronstadt, but eventually her determination won them out and the albums exposed a whole new generation to the sounds of the pre-swing and swing eras.
In 1983, Traditional Pop Standards music was pushed aside and the one-time popular music sung by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett and their contemporaries was relegated in the 1960s and 1970s to Las Vegas club acts and elevator music. Ronstadt recently remarked that she did her part in rescuing these songs which she calls “little jewels of artistic expression” from “spending the rest of their lives riding up and down on the elevators.”
What’s New was released in September 1983 and spent 81 weeks on the main Billboard album chart. It held the #3 position for five consecutive weeks while Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down locked in the #1 and #2 album positions. The album also earned Ronstadt a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.
Played Vs. Heard
Please note that we should — but too often don’t — make a vitally important distinction between two words we tend to use interchangeably on the site. There is an important difference between the sound of records that we’ve played and the sound that we’ve heard.
The stereo, the listening room, our cleaning technologies and who knows what else are all undergoing constant changes. This means that we may have played a better pressing in the past but couldn’t hear it sound as good as it does now. The regular improvements we make in all areas of playback make sonic comparisons over time all but meaningless.