Listeners often look to music for justice they don't find elsewhere, hoping that, there at least, talent will be rewarded with success. They are continually disappointed.
Bonnie Raitt is a good example. She and Linda Ronstadt are two throaty, interpretative singers of old and new folk-rock songs. Ronstadt, with modest talents, has enjoyed phenomenal success. Raitt, who performs at Constitution Hall Tuesday night, is a truly gifted artist of only modest acclaim.
Now Raitt and her record company have decided to go after Ronstadt's kind of success. Raitt's new album, "The Glow" (Warner Brothers HS 3369) uses Ronstadt's producer, Peter Asher, and Ronstadt's key musicians: guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Rock Marotta. The result is a streamlined sound with fewer textures and a clearer structure. Old-time fans will miss Freebo's fretless bass excursions and the supporting band's former freedom. But newcomers to Raitt will appreciate the new clarity.
The sound is still dominated by Raitt's familiar, dramatic blues delivery. On the title song, for example, she lets go of the words so reluctantly that she captures every frustration contained in drunken self-pity.
Raitt won't reach platinum sales merely by hiring Ronstadt's producer. It's a matter of timing. Ronstadt is successful because of the time has been right for a cute, flirty "girl next door" who sings everything straight and pretty. Not so for Raitt, who plants a guitar on her hip, bangs our chords and saucily sings what she thinks, with undertones hinting of much more.
The times may catch up with Raitt, though, and "The Glow" is a good opportunity to discover her. All 10 songs show her musical intelligence and intuition. The record contains both her rollicking dance music style (on Sam & Dave's 1968 hit, "I Thank You") and her confessional ballad style (on "The Glow" by Danny O'Keefe's bassist, Veyler Hildebrand) as well as Raitt's first original composition in seven years, "Standin' by the Same Old Love," a dance song in the Sam & Dave mold. She turns the tables on sexual roles by changing Bobby Troup's 1956 "The Girl Can't Help It" into "The Boy Can't Help It" with a gleefully ogling vocal.
Only twice does the record touch Raitt's previous peaks. "The Glow" is a barside lament that takes all the mellow out of melodrama. "(I Could Have Been Your) Best Old Friend" is written by Tracy Nelson, another singer with Raitt's kind of unrewarded talent. On Nelson's song, Raitt draws the delicate line between friendship and passion for a male friend.It's a brilliant tightrope performance, but hardly the fantasy audiences crave.
When the times finally catch up to Raitt, they'll be ready for Elizabeth Barraclough too. Barraclough's second album, "HI" (Bearsville BRK 6992), captures only one side of Raitt's sound -- the rhythm 'n' blues dance songs. But Barraclough concedes nothing in her strutting vocals.
Barraclough sings her own songs and plays all the guitars as well as some harmonica and keyboards. Her record is produced by Willie Mitchell, who was instrumental in Al Greene's early success. Barraclough sings with the emotional intensity of soul music but with no trace of its fatalism, replacing that with desire waiting to break loose.
Antoher uncompromising woman is Marshall Chapman. On her newest album, "Marshall" (Epic JE 36192), Chapman has deserted her country-music roots for straightforward rock 'n' roll. She sings her new theme song, "Rock 'n' Roll Girl" over slashing electric guitars. She states her position on "Don't Make Me Pregnant": "I don't want to have a baby/I just want to have a ball."
Conceptually, this approach is stimulating. But Chapman's voice is a bit too flat to pull it off. She can sing with plenty of power on a certain line, but she has trouble shifting gears into another pitch or inflection. Her climaxes sound too much like their set-ups to be really effective.
Karla Bonoff has written songs for both Ronstadt and Raitt. As a songwriter, Bonoff has a good ear for melody but not for drama. As a result, her romantic mood pieces come to life only when a good singer adds some guts to the catchy melody. Unfortunately, Bonoff is not the singer to do it. Her voice is lush and dreamy -- pleasant enough, but a bit too vague to carry real emotions. For example, Bonoff's rendition of her own tune, "Home," comes across as hazy nostalgia while Raitt's ached with homesickness.
On Bonoff's second album, "Restless Nights" (Columbia JC 35799), she unveils a number of potentially powerful compositions, such as "The Letter," a jealously melodrama about a discovered love letter. The tune is pretty and promising, but the song goes limp under the breathy resignation of Bonoff's vocal.
Most of Bonoff's lyrics describe a woman so overcome by romance that good judgment is impossible and other concerns are irrelevent. This self-destructive attitude is further reinforced by her perpetually swooning singing. But "Restless Nights"has a few good moments: the Buddy Holly feel of "Baby Don't Go", the catchy chorus on "Trouble Again"; Wendy Waldman's rich harmony on "Never Stop Her Heart"; and Garth Hudson's ghostly accordion on the tradional folk tune, "The Water Is Wide."
But Bonoff's personality seems to slip away. By contrast, Raitt, Nelson, Barraclough and Waldman sing with a stubborn honesty that's a real breakthrough after decades of coyness.