Back to Basics.,
This review is from: Fundamental (Audio CD)
When Bonnie Raitt embarked on the production of her thirteenth studio album, 1998's "Fundamental," she had achieved almost everything that a musician can wish for: an exceptionally long career, the respect of her peers and the admiration of her fans, multiple Grammies, and particularly following her last three records, "Nick of Time" (1989), "Luck of the Draw" (1991) and "Longing in Their Hearts" (1994), even the widespread commercial success that her prior albums, despite all acclaim, had not brought her. But as the title track of this 1998 release makes clear, she then decided that it was time to take a step back and "get back to the Fundamental Things;" to "do the braindrain [and] leave it all behind."
And those fans who only had discovered Raitt as a result of the above-mentioned, vastly successful trio of albums were nothing less than shocked: Gone was Don Was's slick, stylish production which had driven the sound of those records. Gone, the pop/mainstream rock overtones. Back in full force was the blues; as raw and low-down as ever. Back in, the rootsy, down-to-earth feeling of Raitt's very first albums, released almost three decades earlier, now tempered by half a lifetime's worth of experience. In also the star production team of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, who in the 1990s alone had successfully worked with artists like Los Lobos, Neil Finn and Randy Newman, and had helped advance the careers of such strong female singers as Cheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, Vonda Shepard and the Indigo Girls.
True to its title, "Fundamental" is thus a barebones, stripped down recording which soon had the choir of Raitt's most recently acquired fans howl "underproduced" in utter disgust, while others reveled in rediscovering the singer who once, barely more than a teenager, had awed the music scene with her slide guitar skills, her feeling for the blues, and her energy and determination. The album's opening title track is perhaps the best expression of that feeling, with its relaxed, slightly uptempo blues rhythm, its slide guitar solos, the "live-in-the-studio" sound of its vocals, and its background horn arrangements (by Bonnie Raitt herself), subtly framing her voice without ever getting in the way. It is followed by the slow "Cure For Love," all grating blues guitars, written by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Louie Perez (Hidalgo also contributed his instrumental talents); succeeded in turn by veteran Chess blues men J.B. Lenoir and Willie Dixon's "Round and Round," and the first of Bonnie Raitt's five own compositions on the album, "Spit of Love;" from the first dark, edgy guitar riff to the lyrics' last line vintage Raitt, likening the destructive force of a dishonest relationship to a slowly consuming fire and to "a rage as old as Hades" (the sinister underworld of Greek mythology). And after she had covered the upbeat "Thing Called Love" on 1989's "Nick of Time," Raitt chose another John Hiatt tune as "Fundamental"'s fifth track, the melancholic "Lovers Will," describing the lengths to which lovers will go for "the thrill that only love can bring" and deploring that they will often throw themselves and their love away without even giving it another thought, only to realize what they've lost when it is too late. - Next is a trio of Raitt's own compositions, the energetic "Blue For No Reason" and "Meet Me Half Way," in turn pleading to restore a bit of spontaneity to our lives and arguing that an already stale relationship will fail entirely if both partners don't equally contribute to its revival; again, both as much classic Bonnie Raitt tunes as the then following calypso-ish "I'm on Your Side," the lyrics of which thematically resemble those of "Meet Me Half Way." The album is rounded out by the gentle country beats of Dillon O'Brian's "Fearless Love," Joey Spampinato's rocker "I Need Love," and the last track (co-)written by Raitt, the reflective "One Belief Away."
In addition to Los Lobos' David Hidalgo (guitars, bass and background vocals on "Cure For Love") and co-producer Mitch Froom (keyboards, bass on "Spit of Love" and accordion - "my mom's," Raitt reveals in the liner notes - on "Fearless Love") Bonnie Raitt could rely, as always, on a group of outstanding musicians, from Dillon O'Brian (background vocals on his own "Fearless Love") to veteran bassist "Hutch" Hutchinson without whom, for so many years now, no Bonnie Raitt record or live appearance has ever been complete. The album's warm earthy sounds are reflected in the subtle glow of the fall colors depicted in its booklet and front cover, delicately blending with Raitt's red hair. But don't let those brown, red and golden leaves deceive you, and don't be deterred by the mixed reactions "Fundamental" has received. Bonnie Raitt's career is far from over. On March 6, 2000, she was inducted into the Rock'n Roll Hall of Fame, as - in the words of Melissa Etheridge - "a woman in a man's world, breaking ground, [who] can play as well as any man and still be all-woman [and] burn up the strings with the best. Then," Etheridge continued, "there's that voice, that heartbreaking, soulful, sex-on-a-plate voice." And I think as long as Bonnie Raitt can bend the strings of a guitar, we still have much to expect from that voice. With 2002's "Silver Lining," she released her fourteenth studio album; followed by an eight-months-long tour, featuring triple visits to her native Southern California alone and interrupted barely long enough to allow her to catch her breath before going on the road again this spring. When I saw her towards the end of last year's tour in November, she still looked and sounded as great as if she was just getting into the swing of things. She may have gone back to basics with the release of "Fundamental" - but "basics" has nothing whatsoever to do with "stuck at base line" here. It's a reevaluation of her musical values; nothing more. And I am solidly in the camp of those who applaud her for doing so.