In the early Seventies, Bonnie Raitt left Radcliffe College to sing the blues on the Cambridge folk circuit. Within a few years, this native Californian had become a mainstream L.A. rock singer with powerfully lucid traces of R&B in her voice. At its best, her singing blew away both her influences and her competition. Nine Lives, her first record in four long years, will not be remembered as top-drawer Raitt. The likable hooks of the leadoff single, “No Way to Treat a Lady” (written by the multiplatinum team of Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance), fail Raitt for much the same reason that the whole first side does: the mix is off.
It’s understandable that Raitt recast the remarkable West Coast soul of her mid-Seventies work in a contemporary way. It was a mistake, however, for producers George Massenburg and Bill Payne to leave her voice stranded in the middle of a curiously undifferentiated mix, as they did in “Runnin’ Back to Me” and “Who but a Fool (Thief into Paradise).” To hear the way it should be, you don’t have to return to 1975’s Home Plate or 1977’s Sweet Forgiveness. You only have to listen to this record’s “Crime of Passion,” where Raitt’s utterly uncontrived sensuality goes over — not under, through or next to — the relaxed measure of Carlos Vega’s authoritative drumming.
But “Crime of Passion” only hints at Raitt’s potential for making hit records in the Eighties. The Nine Lives cuts that most clearly convey her talents are “Freezin’ (for a Little Human Love)” and “True Love Is Hard to Find,” two of four tracks produced in 1983 by Rob Fraboni, who worked with Raitt in 1982 on her terrific rock & roll-based Green Light. The first is a snappy, ironic electro-dance, with guitarist Johnny Lee Schell playing like a Texas-style Keith Richards, and the second is a spontaneous strut through Toots and the Maytals’ reggae. Neither may indicate much about the Raitt of the future, but at least you can hear her, Raitt’s next album, which can’t materialize soon enough, should make that a priority.