Depending on how you categorize Aretha Franklin (and with P.J. Harvey and Corin Tucker classified as works-in-progress), Bonnie Raitt stands as the rock era’s pre-eminent female artist. In part, her achievement is simply a function of longevity; few women have braved rock ‘n’ roll’s decidedly male leanings for as long as Raitt. Yet her endurance is a species of her greatest strengths — a commitment to life’s long haul and an artistic vision that effortlessly reconciles a purportedly youth music with adult values and emotions. In the grand tradition of the past’s most celebrated interpretive singers, Raitt has constructed a distinctive, wholly formed persona — warmly humanist, marked by a no-nonsense intelligence — from rock’s vast songbook.
Raitt’s second album, 1972’s Give It Up, is the standard text, a stunningly beautiful tour de force that amply demonstrates her remarkably flexible m.o. Augmented by three winning originals and a blues readymade honoring her spiritual foremother Sippie Wallace, she deftly appropriates and recasts (and damn near redeems) the oft-maligned singer-songwriter canon — from the deserving (Chris Smither) to the overrated (Jackson Browne) to the justly obscure (Joel Zoss, Eric Kaz).
Backed by a sympathetic collection of session pros and fellow travelers, Raitt fashions a lithe, lightly funky blues groove with intimations of New Orleans while positing a working model of functional feminism — at ease in a man’s, man’s, man’s world yet ready to subvert its conventions, openly sexual but also vulnerable and feminine, comfortable with herself and her life’s work.
Still, despite its faint whiff of market-induced desperation (embarrassingly misbegotten cover, Paul Rothchild’s “slick” production, endless parade of “guest artists”), my sentimental favorite remains 1975’s Home Plate. Ever canny, Raitt treats the album’s well-crafted surfaces as a foil to better showcase her unassuming vocal gifts — a warm, well-rounded timbre, textured by a knowing exploration of physical limits.
And the artist’s song selection is worthy of Capitol-era Sinatra. From Allen Toussaint’s ebullient opener “What Do You Want The Boy To Do” to the heartbreakingly detailed “Run Like A Thief” to the assertively swaggering “Sugar Mama”, Raitt explores the extremes of adult love — the ecstasies of initial infatuation, the pleasures of enduring monogamy, the scars of lost love, the torment of fucking around — all culminating in the effortlessly evoked community of the closer, “Your Sweet And Shiny Eyes”.
The remaining entries in Warner’s second Remasters installment range in quality from merely very good to excellent. Takin’ My Time effects a late night, bluesy intimacy with rhythmic explorations extending from Louisiana to Trinidad (and two-too-many listless ballads). The nuevo-torch stylings of The Glow indulge Raitt’s surprisingly supple instrument to winning effect (“Your Good Thing” is for the ages), though its relatively nondescript uptempo efforts suffer by comparison. And juiced by two propulsive Terry Adams sure-shots, the title track and the thematic “Me And The Boys”, the underrated Green Light is a nonstop roadhouse party — arch big-’80s production notwithstanding.
While re-familiarizing myself with Raitt’s back catalog (one of the past month’s more gratifying pursuits), my wife waxed nostalgic for Bonnie’s golden age, back when “she was good” — a not entirely just sentiment, I quickly noted. Few artists are more deserving of success than Raitt, and her post-breakthrough output certainly has its virtues; Luck Of The Draw is almost as songful as Give It Up or Home Plate, and the Mitchell Froom/Tchad Blake-produced Fundamental adds much-needed clutter to her well-manicured adult contemporary soundscape.
Still, Raitt’s ’70s records form the bedrock of her legacy. If you’re only familiar with the seamless MOR of Nick Of Time or the overly cautious Bonnie Raitt Collection, my initial claims of lasting greatness may seem absurd. Trust me, they aren’t.