Bonnie Raitt has made fabulous records over the course of four decades now, and despite the sundry ways producers have tried to shape her music, one thing has remained constant: All of the singer-guitarist's albums, from 1971's "Bonnie Raitt" to the just-released "Souls Alike," are loose-limbed and rollicking, lovingly crafted collections of songs that conjure Memphis soul, Delta blues and -- most poignantly these days -- the intersection of those styles that, among other things, the once and future New Orleans stamped on the musical map.
Set by sad happenstance against the backdrop of the Big Easy's devastation, "Souls Alike" is a minor masterpiece. Make no mistake: There's nothing on Raitt's new disc that would surprise anyone who has spent quality time (i.e., not listening while sipping a latte inside a Starbucks) with any of the records she's released over the last decade or so.
Beginning with 1989's "Nick of Time," in fact, Raitt has worked the same sonic angle over and over: Combine soft-focused production with expert (but not studio-slick) playing while cherry-picking ace tunes from talented songwriters. Then -- and here's the crucial part -- make your mark with soulful singing, inspired slide guitar and renditions of those tunes that only feel tossed off.
"Souls Alike" sticks to that winning formula, but the new disc outshines her recent records in part because of historical circumstance but mainly because it's the album on which Raitt proves once and for all that -- like your true best friend -- you can go years without hearing from her and still happily pick up where you left off.
Raitt's last album, "Silver Lining," appeared in 2002, but the shuffling cadence and memorable melody of "I Will Not Be Broken" on the new disc will immediately resonate with die-hard and casual fans alike -- all while serving as an unofficial fight song for New Orleans. "Take me down / You can hold me," Raitt sings amid quietly chiming guitars and a swell of Hammond organ. "But you can't hold what's within."
Elsewhere, the creepy, minor-key verses of the swampy blues rocker "God Was in the Water" give way to a redemptive, hook-laden chorus, while with "Love on One Condition" and "Unnecessarily Mercenary," Raitt offers a matched set of wry relationship songs, both of which call to mind Louisiana's legendary piano man, Dr. John. Both tunes, not coincidentally, were written by Raitt's keyboardist, Jon Cleary, whose fine solo work is also steeped in the good Doctor's freewheeling, barrelhouse style of New Orleans R&B.
The scruffy "Crooked Crown," meanwhile, showcases Raitt's skills as a rock-and-roller, with its skewed rhythms and funked-up guitars providing a choice backdrop for her playfully chanted vocals. "I Don't Want Anything to Change" offers a stark contrast to that track, though: It's a stately, finger-picked ballad that Raitt delivers with an aching drawl similar to that of the bayou-born Lucinda Williams.
Raitt, of course, is a California girl, but one whose heart and imagination have always resided in the Deep South. As with each of her albums, "Souls Alike" somehow manages to pay affectionate tribute to and be a part of the region's musical traditions. That's no small feat. And this time out, it couldn't come at a better time.
Bonnie Raitt is scheduled to appear Dec. 6 at Constitution Hall.