Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Basic Bonnie

Raitt gets "Fundamental."

By Ted Drozdowski

MAY 4, 1998:  Intimacy writ large is a strange notion. It's more a quality you'd find in a Porsche than in an album. Jammed inside the sports car's snug interior are enough glorious luxuries to sustain womblike comfort even while you're hurtling down the Southeast Expressway. But when a superstar decides to make a "small" album -- the same way Hollywood might make a "small" movie starring Nicolas Cage and Kate Winslet -- and really aces it, the result is just as satisfying.

Which is my ass-backwards way of explaining what Bonnie Raitt's accomplished with Fundamental (Capitol), a CD that's elemental, but on a grand scale. Its sound is sultry as a hot Louisiana afternoon, when the sun sends baking waves of contentment, and humidity sticks gently to the skin. Rich in laid-back funk grooves, sparked by Raitt's finest guitar performances, and jacked on the blues dictum "Love may bring you happiness/Love may bring you sorrow/But love what you've got today/'Cause it might be gone tomorrow," Fundamental offers 11 doses of easy pleasure. Consider it comfort food for the soul -- satisfying as warm crawfish étouffée, bread pudding with whiskey sauce, and a sweet iced tea to chase them.

Okay. So I'm preparing for New Orleans's annual JazzFest -- where Raitt will play before she hits the Orpheum here in Boston on Tuesday and Wednesday -- as I write this. But if you'll forgive my indulgence, you'll be rewarded by Raitt's.

As she declares, Fundamental is her way of returning to basics. So she chose, wrote, and co-wrote tunes about lovin' and livin'. The lyrics and their images are crafty, informed. In "Spit of Love" she's calling down the Furies as she opts for another spin on the hot skewer of the title. In "Cure for Love," which was penned by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Louis Pérez, she's feeling romance pull her down like quicksand as she tries to resist. Sturdy writer/performer John Hiatt's "Lover's Will" gives Raitt a chance to remind us that those we care for most can be the cruelest. And the acoustic tune "Round and Round" is one those old blues double-entendre numbers about humping. That's all pretty basic.

Her choice of producers, however, is daring. Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake haven't had a real smash between them in years. (Froom was the producer of Crowded House's shimmering 1987 hit "Don't Dream It's Over.") Nonetheless, they've developed an interesting approach to producing artists as diverse as Cibo Matto, Suzanne Vega, Elvis Costello, and Los Lobos. They create a spare geography full of small, left-field diversions. That explains the dry-and-in-your-face presentation of Raitt's vocals on "Round and Round" and the near-naked framing of the best guitar solos, like Hidalgo's probing Jimmie Vaughan masquerade on "Cure for Love."

The rippling African-style six-string on "One Belief Away" is all Raitt -- these days she's intrigued with Zimbabwe's Oliver Mutukudzi. But the subtle drive of the album's drumming, by Costello's chum Pete Thomas, is from Froom & Blake's conceptual bag. Cymbals are kept to a minimum; they never ring. Toms and snare and kick drums thump in a natural shuffle, nearly muffled instead of embracing the usual big-budget, pop-album crack 'n' shine. NRBQ bassman Joey Spampinato always runs deep and low.

Keeping that high end -- the zone cymbals and strings and synthesizers and guitars eat up -- uncluttered is one of the keys to this album's intimacy. Not only are the overall sounds superbly recorded, but by sticking mostly to the midrange they beg adjectives like "warm" and "full" from listeners. And simple arrangements allow every nuance to bask in the open. So the jittery guitar break and the pumping piano on "I Need Love" steam straight out of the speakers, even as they threaten to knock the tune's tonal center ass over tea kettle. What keeps the song on its feet is Raitt's unwavering strength as a vocalist and the mighty beat of the drums and her guitar.

The upshot is that if you're hankering for the big-budget gloss and bravura treatment of something like Raitt's 1990 hit "I Can't Make You Love Me," from her Grammy-grabbing Nick of Time, forget it. Saucy grooves, Raitt's marvelous voice, and her singing slide guitar are the three fundamentals of Fundamental. She's never vocalized or played more naturally than on these songs. Without stretching for soaring crescendos, her singing and guitar work sound as if they came from the same sassy instrument -- one that's a little world-weary but commanding, wise, real, beautiful, and at some measure of peace. And if that sounds like an apt description of Raitt herself . . . well, good for her.


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