Capitol Records, 1998
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/02/1998
If you're Bonnie Raitt, this is exactly how things are supposed to work out.
Here you are, twenty-five years into a career that's seen you win critics' hearts only to fall victim to changing musical fashions, seen you do some hard living only to rise again, soaring higher than ever on a trio of soulful, redemptive -- and commercially golden -- albums. Here you are, free at last from just about every demon that's ever chased you, getting the chance to make your music, your way, with only your own expectations on your shoulders.
And then, poised with everything perfectly in place, every star aligned for you, you cap it all off with one of the most remarkable albums of your career.
You start by parting ways with the production team that made a significant contribution to the sound that jump-started your career. Over the course of three acclaimed albums, producer Don Was and engineer Ed Cherney gave your earthy blues-rock an accessibility and sheen that threw open the doors of adult contemporary radio.
But you need to make a change, because it's high time you take advantage of the artistic freedom offered by your success. It's time now to loosen up a little and strike out into some new territory in the studio. And who better to do that with than quirky roots experimentalists Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake (producers of multiple albums by Crowded House, Richard Thompson and Los Lobos)?
The chorus of the opening title tune neatly sums up your approach to the whole project: "Let's get back to the fundamental things / Let's get back to the elements of style / Let's get back to simple skin on skins / Let's get back to the fundamental things." The sound is intimate and elemental, like a private set from a tight garage blues band, layered with horns and spiced with your very own sweet slide guitar.
You keep your old habit of picking songs from great songwriters like John Hiatt ("Lovers Will"), Paul Brady (who co-writes two songs with you) and David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos renown, who co-writes "Cure For Love"), but the songs are even better than usual. "Cure For Love" in particular is stunning, churning along in a languorous groove that you top off with the most urgent, sensual vocals of your career.
Then you dip into one of your favorite blues legends' songbooks, pluck out Willie Dixon's "Round And Round," and -- in concert with Froom and Blake -- transform it into an amazing production piece, with your distant, scratchy 78-RPM vocals contrasting with the sharp acoustic picking and hypnotic percussion in the foreground.
Top that? Well, you try with "Spit Of Love," a four-minute pitched battle with the demons of your own desires. As you wail through the throes of the dark side of love, your slide guitar wails along like a siren. The combination of passion, pain and primal release is awe-inspiring.
Somewhere in the middle you toss off a smile-inducing musical oxymoron in "Blue For No Reason," a solidly rocking piece of introspection whose rootsy sound is a dead ringer for Sheryl Crow (another Froom/Blake client) -- at least until your stinging slide solos start rebounding off Froom's rhythmic organ fills.
Still, throughout this diverse, engaging album you have to deal with one negative reality: you've defied everyone's expectations, and there is always some kind of price to pay for doing that. Your sound is NOT the same, and the idiosyncratic Froom/Blake production does feel intrusive and overly self-conscious in places ("So just how many low-fi keyboard tones and oddball percussion sounds you think we can pack in here?"). But taken as a whole, the album is a decided leap forward.
You can't expect this to be your best-selling album. The sound is too different from your recent output and there isn't an obvious single in the bunch (with the possible exception of "Blue For No Reason"). But that's why it may in time prove to be among your finest moments -- because there are no compromises made here, just brave, passionate exploration. You could have taken the easy way out and stuck with the safe, comfortable approach, but you didn't, and you should be proud of that.