Bonnie Raitt has a well-known habit of sideswiping success. But the recent release, "Green Light," is her most spectacular near- miss in years.
Bluesier, sweeter, more soulful than her last several efforts, this album finds her withdrawing just a tad from the overt poppishness a scattering of producers saw fit to provide for her. What's left is pop with a gritty edge mingled with a lot of git-down- and-moan R&B.
The very best examples stand out on the first listening. Eric Kaz's "River of Tears" is a well-honed piece of blues-rock the likes of which Raitt should wrap her shimmering pipes around more often. The essential elements come together cleanly -- a Rolling Stones guitar motif, a fine lovesick lyric and Raitt's state-of-the-art interpretation.
Even better is Bob Dylan's "Let's Keep It Between Us." The gender swap lends new coloring to the lyrics, and Raitt's heart-ravaged reading is impeccable. The tune could stand a little more guitar fill, but otherwise it's a winner.
It's because she sounds so great on these two songs that the rest of the album seems to lack finesse. Raitt isn't quite like the little girl with the little curl: We're not likely to ever hear her do something really awful, but when she's very good it's as though her own act is too hard to follow.
"Can't Get Enough" is made tough by a growly synthesizer/guitar hook, but Raitt's singing should have made it even tougher. Similarly, "Keep This Heart in Mind" rolls along a trifle too smoothly. Nobody can challenge a song like Raitt, but here she sounds like she's having too much fun to really bother.
I never cared for "Me and the Boys" when NRBQ did it, and I don't much fancy it here, either. But at least it's not pale and feckless like Eddy Grant's "Baby Come Back" and "Green Lights," another Terry Adams tune. Raitt doesn't cover NRBQ well for the same reason she slips on straight rock or pure pop, and I suspect she should avoid schticking up her natural blues affinity with New Wave quirkiness.
Still, there's not an unlistenable tune in the lot. Her new personnel -- which include Mac McLagan and Ray Ohara -- are smart and tasteful, though not technically impressive. And the sound is sparse and modestly produced -- a definite plus on a Bonnie Raitt album. The Kaz and Dylan tunes alone are worth the price of admission, and that voice, that incredible voice, is what makes one stick around for the rest.
THE ALBUM -- Bonnie Raitt, "Green Light," Warner BSK 3630.