Bonnie Raitt uses her first album in seven years to move fluidly between expected slide-guitar swagger and these deeply intriguing moments featuring impressionistic asides from Bill Frisell.
Maybe that should arrive as no surprise, coming as it does from someone who spent time on the road in her youth with the likes of Muddy Waters, Sippie Wallace and John Lee Hooker, but who has always had the nerve and wit to move well outside of Delta stylings. But in an age where every legacy artist seems duty bound to crank out either a dusty collection of songbook retreads or a sadly calculated guest-stuffed stunt, Raitt’s new album remains solidly, thrillingly sure of itself.
Even her earliest sides for Warner Brothers seemed to have as much in common with Chess Records as they did singer-songwriter types like Jackson Browne — and such is the case, once more, on the deeply involving Slipstream. There is an inviting contemporary feel to the album, but it never moves too far outside of Raitt’s bedrock sound.
In the interim since 2005’s Souls Alike, when the Capitol Records contract that saw her move into multi-platinum, multi-Grammy award winning stature ran out, Raitt has endured the searing loss of her father John Raitt in 2005 and then her brother Steve Raitt in 2009, among others. After taking a rare period off, the 2000 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee made a halting return to the studio — this time recording for her own Redwing label with country blues/Americana producer Joe Henry (Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke).
Raitt started with a pass on Bob Dylan’s “Million Miles,” a nasty little lament from his celebrated 1997 recording Time out of Mind. Over two days, Raitt would record four tracks — two from Dylan, and a pair from Henry — that found their way onto Slipstream. “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” co-written by Henry with Loudon Wainwright III, becomes a chill-inducing back-pew cry. Her take on Dylan’s “Standing in the Doorway” finds her aching vocals perfectly situated inside Frisell’s echo-filled guitar soundscape. Henry’s “God Only Knows” brings the album to a raw, emotional close.
In the end, however, Raitt sought a deeper complexity, something earthier to balance these hushed, darkly mysterious asides. The act of inviting her longtime bandmates back in for a series of self-produced tracks ends up giving Slipstream this textured, human scale — even as it underscores what makes Raitt so very special.
After all, perhaps only Raitt — a singer who carries off both the winking grit of “Something to Talk About” and the deep-blue longing of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” — could apply a gently rocking reggae feel to Gerry Rafferty’s AM-pop gem “Right Down the Line” and then turn around and burn through the twilight melancholy of Al Anderson and Bonnie Bishop’s devastating lament “Not Cause I Wanted To.”
Raitt has become so memorably effective at untangling the web of challenges and opportunities associated with aging, notably on the lilting title track from her 1989 smash Nick of Time, and she resumes that exploration on Southern jazz-rocker Randall Bramblett’s “Used to Rule the World” — only with a rugged new attitude. Working again with George Marinelli (guitar), James “Hutch” Hutchinson (bass), and Ricky Fataar (drums), she uncouples a similarly funky groove on tracks like “Down to You” too, stirring up a rhythmic stew straight out of Little Feat’s kitchen.
Taken together, they give Slipstream this layered, very adult sense of narrative heft. Bonnie Raitt is back and, once again, it’s on her own terms.
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Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Slipstream’ is due April 10 from Redwing.
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