In 1971, on her very first album — with Minneapolis folkies and Chicago bluesmen threading hand claps, shuttlecock shakers, tubas and tenor saxophones through the mix — twenty-one-year-old vocalist and slide guitarist Bonnie Raitt announced her resistance to both folk gentility and studio antisepsis. Admittedly, the comeback that began with 1989’s Grammy-winning Nick of Time did exploit Don Was’ humanized variation on the same control-freak production values she couldn’t deal with in the Seventies. But now she seems to have had enough, and her first studio album in four years enlists producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake on a quest for the fundamental things.
“The Fundamental Things” announces the album’s intentions — “Let’s run naked through these city streets” — and then illustrates the metaphor with gobs of slide, lazy horn parts that Raitt wrote herself and dimly moaned vocal interjections. Blake doesn’t unloose as many noises here as on the aural archive he crafted for Los Lobos’ Latin Playboys project. But throughout, he assures that Raitt’s usual complement of felt, well-crafted songs will sound more homemade and overheard than the well-meaning Was could tolerate. Standouts: “Cure for Love,” which multi-instrumentalist, backup vocalist and erstwhile Latin Playboy David Hidalgo would own if Raitt hadn’t left her voiceprints all over it, and the J.B. Lenoir blues “Round and Round,” antiqued to a fare-thee-well over percussion that could be some exotic drum or an empty box of Havanas.
The material flattens slightly about halfway through, and the production gets straighter as well. But in a musical world where “everything’s carefully prearranged,” Raitt has thrown a Birkenstock in the works, and the clatter sounds like life itself. After twenty-seven years, fifteen albums and nine Grammys, we should all be impressed — and grateful — that she felt the need.