Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Second Childhood

Raitt tries for younger, rawer sound.

By Michael McCall

MAY 4, 1998:  Bonnie Raitt has become so good at what she does that she just naturally provides the media with a hook for stories. By naming her latest album Fundamental, she signals that her 15th LP is a return to basics. Just as 1989's Nick of Time heralded an unlikely midlife career renaissance, and just as 1991's Luck of the Draw suggested that her good fortune was a matter of luck rather than destiny, the new album says she's ready to get back to the gritty, blues-based sound of her younger days. In case anyone misses the point, Raitt has been punching up interviews and promotional materials with statements about how unprocessed the album sounds.

In truth, when she claims that Fundamental is the rawest of all of her recordings, Raitt overstates her case. Yes, the new album is a tad more stripped back than the carefully produced million-sellers that have made her the '90s pop-music poster gal for late-in-life success. But her new songs, despite the mock-primitive touches added by coproducers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, aren't nearly as rough and natural sounding as the singer's initial triumvirate of albums: 1971's raucous Bonnie Raitt, 1972's great Give It Up, and 1973's equally outstanding Takin' My Time--all of which still stand as the most visceral and soulful work of her career.

There's no way polished professionals like Froom and Blake, recording in triple-scale Hollywood studios, are going to match the greasy voodoo that slithered naturally from Raitt's first recording. Signed at age 21 to Warner Bros. Records, Raitt spent her minuscule first recording budget at a makeshift studio in a rural summer campsite in backwoods Minnesota. There, she gathered together a misfit melange of Chicago blues veterans (Junior Wells, A.C. Reed) and fellow longhaired blues aficionados to create a wondrous collection where the mistakes fell in place with inspired spontaneity.

In today's recording world, that kind of magic isn't about to happen--at least not on a record by a 48-year-old pop-music veteran, and not when that veteran is backed by a million dollars of promotional money.

Still, to her credit, Raitt attempts to rekindle as much of that early spirit as possible on Fundamental. After 11 years of sobriety, and as a yoga-practicing activist with a healthy seven-year marriage, she's not about to retreat to the liquor, drugs, and indiscriminate sex of 1971. Nonetheless, she does devote several songs to seeking that same sense of freedom--only this time she wants to liberate her soul through phyical abandon, spiritual release, and a well-grounded enthusiasm for life.

On Fundamental, Raitt repeatedly declares that she's ready to get back in touch with the wildness inside of her. "Burn down the house behind you, run bare-ass through the streets again," she sings with characteristic cheekiness in the album-opening "Fundamental Things." After several albums that probed the joys and tensions of settling down and struggling to treat life and love with head-on responsibility, Raitt wants to rediscover the abandon of her youth and let it merge with her newfound maturity. It's this search that gives Fundamental its soul, while it's Raitt's easy command of her talents that makes the search such a pleasure.

As for the album's musical arrangements, the songs work best and sound their rawest when Raitt's small combo of veteran musicians plays without pretense. When Froom and Blake strain for primitiveness, they do more harm than good. Unfortunately, the worst example of this comes on "Meet Me Half Way," a song Raitt cowrote with a couple of Nashvillians, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Annie Roboff. It doesn't help that the lyrics make for the album's most contrived setting, lifted straight from the '90s Music Row handbook of strong-woman topics: A man comes home late from work and barks at his wife for not having food on the table, never considering the fact that she's had a hard day too. It's a common theme, as true to life as marriage and divorce, but the lyrics are simply another PC treatise about woman good, man bad.

Raitt usually avoids such simplistic stereotyping, and on other songs she harvests the same turf with more fruitful results. "I'm on Your Side," for example, finds Raitt asking her combative mate if he likes to argue and fight "just to make sure things'll never get dull." Set to a reggae rhythm and sunny African guitar accents, the tune playfully suggests that the couple start nurturing each other rather than constantly staying on guard and looking for faults. "Come on baby, take the gloves off and untie those shoes," Raitt purrs. "I got something more tantalizing for your left and right to do."

Similarly, "One Belief Away," which also employs world-music influences, suggests that a relationship should grow beyond doubts and shadows and move to a place where love is allowed to bloom fully. As usual, Raitt also offers at least one stunningly mature ballad. John Hiatt's "Lovers Will" is an unsentimental yet emotionally vivid look at how lovers humiliate themselves with actions that cause pain. The song also shows how the same people humble themselves by learning to forgive their partner's failings and deceits. Raitt gives the song a tender resonance that few performers can equal.

Beyond that, the album's most memorable songs are the spirited ones, and it's here that Raitt truly reconnects with her rocking inner child. Both "Cure for Love" and "Spit of Love" cast convincing spells that evoke the primal pull of lust. Even better are "I Need Love" and "Blue for No Reason," two positive anthems about having the guts to go for what you want in life; Raitt sounds like she's having a ball as she rollicks through them.

In "Blue for No Reason," Raitt provides yet another theme that's ripe for picking. She begins by restating the opening song's images of running free, only this time she muses about the childhood pleasure of sprinting through a field at full-speed for no reason other than the exhilaration of how it feels. She then fast-forwards to the present with a pointed reference to the pressures of stardom. "I'm overrun, I'm starting to feel like a hired gun," she sings. Then she asks, "Where's the chance, where's the fun, where's the pleasin'?"

With Fundamental, Raitt takes a gamble packed with calculated chance. As it turns out, though, the album's pleasures come when she stops stretching for rawness and simply relaxes and has fun. Maybe it's not the wildness of her youth that she needs to rediscover--maybe it's just the realization that life at age 21 is a lot less encumbered than life at age 48.

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