Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bonnie Raitt - Luck of the Draw

Bonnie Raitt - Luck of the Draw
by Alfred Soto

When Juliana Hatfield made her infamous remark in 1993 about Bonnie Raitt – Raitt was the only female guitarist worth emulating – she earned more smirks than she deserved, but it was indicative. In 1993 no one was less hip than Bonnie Raitt. The creator of several well-regarded albums in the seventies on which the sensual tug of her voice foiled the precise holes her guitar punched, Raitt's triumph at the 1989 Grammys contributed one more chapter in a dime novel: she was a Survivor, a proto Behind the Music entry, and utterly out of time when the seismic changes that the Seattle scene wrought in the industry made hash out of such tropes. She'd endured drug and alcohol abuse, bad relationships, and several failed commercial compromises involving synthesizers to record 1989's Nick of Time, a solid, quaint, and dull album helmed by Don Was whose triumph at that year's ceremonies denoted a counter-revolution against the likes of the Traveling Wilburys' Volume One and (really) Fine Young Cannibals' The Raw and the Cooked: well-regarded musicianly studio rock pressed against the Technicolor pseudo garage rock of Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever and the radio-validated leftism of Don Henley's The End of the Innocence, the latter of which might have won in another year.

But the Raitt phenomenon wasn't as reactionary as we thought. Fast-forward two years. Widely regarded as the band's commercial if rarely its aesthetic peak, R.E.M.'s Out of Time confirmed what we already knew about them yet was no mere placeholder; to date, Mike Mills' harmonies have never sounded so charming, have never drawn the same warmth from singer Michael Stipe. You could hear a decade's worth of steadily accruing success well-spent in engineering, in Stipe's newfound determination to pin down his ambiguities with vocals whose declarative burr meshed with three other musicians willing to trade the kudzu for a more suburban plant – Spanish moss, say. Out of Time, in other words, came off as a consolidation disguised as a mercenary move.

The septuple-platinum Luck of the Draw was mercenary, alright: do you blame Raitt for taking advantage of the opportunity? But she was canny enough to understand R.E.M.'s lesson: use platinum validation to fund aesthetic outreach. The results were pretty slight next to Achtung Baby, or even Out of Time, but we don't imagine Album of the Year winners approaching the September of their years producing rock and roll as feisty as this. Dowdy, anachronistic, and probably redundant, Luck of the Draw is nevertheless essential listening for anyone who appreciates how subversive gentility can be. Ambiguity too. Raitt could play the R.E.M. Game too: “Something to Talk About” is a tease as self-assured as “Losing My Religion,” with a killer guitar part to boot. Since both Top Five singles were in the Top 40 at the same time that summer, this wasn't lost on listeners: losing your religion would be something to talk about indeed.

I admire how Luck of the Draw humbly mixes self-written compositions with covers, John Hiatt boilerplate, and L.A. songs-for-hire – a model that I wish more men would follow (there's a fascinating essay to be written about the ease with which female artists from Aretha to Rosanne Cash include their own songs almost as afterthoughts on their classic recordings; is auteurism a male obsession?). Maybe she's too damn tasteful; there's little sense that she's an artist whose well-documented personal excesses dovetail with aesthetic overreach (you'll find no Tusks in Raitt's catalogue). In any case, Luck of the Draw offers lots of pleasures. Even in high school, when The KLF's "3 AM Eternal" and Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" struggled to relieve Bryan Adams' Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves horror from the Number One slot, I thought that "Something To Talk About" was a well-deserved hit. It's sexy in an adult, fully cognizant way; you'd have to go back to Fleetwood Mac's "Little Lies" to find a Top Five hit sung by a fortysomething woman this sly. "I Can't Make You Love Me" takes static melancholia to a new peak. "All at Once" and "One Part Be My Lover" are the keepers: anchored by Raitt's own electric piano, she deepens the middle-aged euphoria of "Something to Talk About" with shrewd remarks about fights with her grown daughter and accepting the limitations of her aging body. And seven million people heard them.

I'm not sure whether NPR promoted Raitt – I was too young. Anyway, Lucinda Williams stole the alternative adult contemporary crown that Raitt molded in the early nineties. While Raitt's Grammy win has paid huge dividends – her albums are still Top 40 events which ship at least gold – her brand of sincerity has produced no heirs. Where Williams' songs and vocals have lapsed into a tremulous self-regard that makes late eighties Bryan Ferry sound like Janis Joplin, Raitt plows ahead, her restraint and simplicity a noose, and a weapon. Singing Paul Brady's “Luck of the Draw,” she invests the worn poker tropes with wonder and fear; she's tasted failure (Richard Thompson's background vocals and patented growl-guitar remind her), and she's ready to enjoy success, but warily. If survivordom imparts any lesson worth learning, this is it.

Alfred Soto is a college instructor, media advisor, and freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, eMusic, Seattle Weekly and Paper Thin Walls.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

September 15, 2008 at 6:41 AM  
Blogger hutlock said...


Just... wow.

September 15, 2008 at 7:13 AM  
Blogger Alfred Soto said...

Ooh! Did I miss something?

September 15, 2008 at 11:22 AM  
Blogger kiss out the jams said...

"Is auteurism a male obsession?" got me thinking. On the female svengali side there's Diane Warren of the damned and a chick in the Matrix and Linda Perry's second wind. But female artists seem looser in their "morals" in this respect; variety comes more naturally to Ashlee Simpson or Pink than, to choose a totally random bag of indie men, the Black Keys. Maybe more men are insecure about ownership.

September 15, 2008 at 7:57 PM  
Blogger hutlock said...

Alfred, you missed Juliana Hatfield offering to sell you her panties for $20. Yes, really.

September 25, 2008 at 1:44 PM  

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