Bonnie Raitt's roots are showing

March 20, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

When Bonnie Raitt's album "Nick of Time" swept the Grammy Awards in 1989, the consensus was that her victory marked a turning point for her generation. No longer would it be necessary for baby boomers to feign youthfulness in order to maintain their grip on pop music relevance, for as Raitt's album surged past platinum, songs about adult affairs seemed as appropriate to the Top 40 as puppy love ever had.

There was nothing new about this approach for Raitt, of course. Well-schooled in the blues, a style whose practitioners have always seen their songs as being by and for grown-ups, she was used to singing about real-life people in real-life situations.

But the way Raitt's audience related to that music has changed dramatically since 1971, when her first album was released. Back then, her devotion to the blues was seen almost as a form of music appreciation, an attempt to hip younger listeners to an older, deeper tradition. Now, however, that same sense of roots seems to anchor her in a tradition that listeners her age find far more genuine and resonant than the postmodern youth music of today.

Consequently, a lot of baby boomers will take Raitt's new album, "Longing in Their Hearts" (Capitol 81427, arriving in stores Tuesday), as a welcome return to what rock and roll used to be.

Listening to "Longing" is like slipping into a well-worn pair of jeans -- it feels comfortable, unpretentious, familiar. The album's sound is smooth and soulful, its songs are bittersweet and well-observed, and its sensibility is given not to flash and dazzle but to depth and subtlety. It would be hard for most fans to imagine music more completely removed from the slick, superficial standards of today's pop marketplace.

Don't be fooled, though. Deep down, what makes "Longing in Their Hearts" seem so wonderfully genuine is the enormous musicianship that went into it.

For starters, it's a beautifully recorded album, richly rendered and lush with detail. Raitt keeps the arrangements lean and crisp, and her band seldom clutters a song with more notes than necessary. Even better, producer Don Was manages to evoke a '60s soul-session sound by stressing vintage keyboards over their synthesized equivalents, and by emphasizing the empathy between drummer Ricky Fataar and bassist James "Hutch" Hutchinson.

Certainly, that's what drives the album's first single, "Love Sneakin' up on You." Long before Raitt sells us on the lyric, Hutchinson and Fataar (with an assist from Scott Thurston's clavinet) have sucked us into the song's soulful, Memphis-style backbeat. Even the bridge, theoretically a showcase for Raitt's slide guitar solo, still puts a premium on the rhythm-goosing percussion fills.

Or take "I Sho Do," a lusty love song whose brassy, organ-spiked pulse owes more than a little to the Hi Rhythm sound that fueled Al Green's greatest hits. Groove, it would seem, is as much the heart of this album as it would be for any rap single.

Raitt's taste in rhythm, though, is a tad more eclectic than that of the typical hip-hopper. "Cool, Clear Water," for instance, starts off with a lazy, Caribbean-flavored arrangement rife with reggae after-beats and a mandolin part that evokes nothing so much as the sound of steel drums. Midway through the tune, however, the tropical rhythms evaporate into a melancholy Celtic drone as Paul Brady's warbling tin whistle takes the lead -- a bit of instrumental color that seems to come out of nowhere.

Raitt, though, understands how the rhythms of Caribbean and ** Celtic music fit together, and so has no trouble making the pieces fit together. In much the same way, she not only recognizes the classic British ballad cadences beneath Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day," but is canny enough to let Brady's lonesome, keening harmonies give the song the sort of timeless flavor that would be as at home in Appalachia as in the Scottish highlands.

But where "Longing in Their Hearts" really shows its strengths is on the slow songs. It isn't just that Raitt's most impassioned singing seems to arise when she has room to play rhythmically, although the vivid, bluesy cadences of "Feeling of Falling" would certainly support that argument; rather, it's as if the economy and restraint ballads demand of Raitt seem to lend additional power and focus to her performances.

"Circle Dance," for instance, keeps its rhythm arrangement so tightly under wraps that its pulse seems more implied than stated. Yet the melody flows easily, and Raitt's sweet, regretful vocal lends the song enough pop appeal that the song seems every bit as catchy as the upbeat numbers. Similarly, the accompaniment on "Storm Warning" is so understated that most listeners won't notice anything beyond Raitt's voice and guitar (though it's really the drums and keyboard that carry the song).

Tellingly, the only song on "Longing in Their Hearts" that actively evokes the blues-revival approach Raitt championed in her youth is the album-closing "Shadow of Doubt," an acoustic blues cut with harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite that easily confirms Raitt's command of the style.

This time, though, what we hear in her voice isn't musical evangelism but the pure pleasure of a good song well sung. And if you want to know the truth, blues singing doesn't get any more genuine than that.

LISTEN TO BONNIE

Is Bonnie Raitt's "Longing in Their Hearts" really a return to what rock and roll used to be? Hear for yourself by calling Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone telephone, punch in the four-digit code 6164 after you hear the greeting.

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