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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Bonnie Raitt: Streetlights

BONNIE RAITT: STREETLIGHTS (1974)

1) That Song About The Midway; 2) Rainy Day Man; 3) Angel From Montgomery; 4) I Got Plenty; 5) Streetlights; 6) What Is Success; 8) Ain't Nobody Home; 9) Everything That Touches You; 10) Got You On My Mind; 11) You Got To Be Ready For Love.

Listen to Takin' My Time and Streetlights back to back and you get a valuable lesson in what was deemed «more commercial» and «less commercial» circa 1974. While some of the songs on Takin' My Time sound just like the songs on Streetlights, the big difference is that everything that constituted Bonnie Raitt's own artistic sauce has pretty much been ditched — her guitar play­ing skills, her diversity in selecting other people's material, her very important feel for pre-war blues and vaudeville music, and even her own humble attempts at writing songs.

None of that matters, thought Bonnie's new producer Jerry Ragovoy, and pushed her towards becoming a «normal» artist — singing soft orchestrated acoustic ballads, collected from outside contemporary songwriters. Apparently, the new idea was to market Ms. Raitt as a singer: Warner Bros.' answer to Karen Carpenter, or something of the sort. Although her career was slowly gaining traction, with Takin' My Time finally making it into the Top 100, apparently, they succeeded in convincing her that a slight image change was necessary in order to attract larger audiences — and that this image change necessitated dropping Sippie Wallace covers from her repertoire, for one thing, and replacing them with something more «relevant».

Okay, says Bonnie, and starts things off with a cover of Joni Mitchell's ʽThat Song About The Midwayʼ. She nails the sentiment of the original pretty darn well, but then comes the inevitable: what's the goddamn point? The arrangement has been made a little more «user-friendly» as we add some bottom, in the form of a delicate bassline and some soft congas, and later on, some inobtrusive strings and woodwinds — and you could say that the vocals also make the song more «user-friendly», since Bonnie's voice is higher than Joni's, not to mention free from the pecu­li­arities of Joni's irregular jaw structure, so the average listener might deem Ms. Raitt's rendition «nicer» than Ms. Mitchell's. But in a different lingo, that same thing is called «watering down», and I, for one, have no need whatsoever of anybody watering down Joni Mitchell. Radical trans­formations are one thing (e. g. ʽThis Flight Tonightʼ in the hands of Nazareth), but this sort of treatment adds nothing whatsoever to the original.

Adding almost an insult to almost an injury, the second track is a cover of James Taylor's ʽRainy Day Manʼ — this time, the arrangement adds some jazzy electric guitar licks, louder drums, and a heavily muffled brass and string section, all of them superimposed in such a polite manner that the song becomes boring almost before it has started. Again, Bonnie does a good job, but there is no «edge» to the material, and whatever sentiments James Taylor himself had conveyed through the song, there ain't even a single extra one here.

The rest does not stray too far away from the path: songs are reduced to more or less the same soft, «shallow-introspective» register, regardless of whether they have been penned by overrated superstars (Taylor) or semi-obscure cult legends (John Prine's ʽAngel From Montgomeryʼ). By the time we get to the second side, things start heating up a little, as Bonnie includes several R&B numbers, relatively higher on energy level (Allen Toussaint's ʽWhat Is Successʼ, with a hilarious­ly «ominous» string arrangement; Ragovoy's own ʽAin't Nobody Homeʼ, where the brass section is finally given free reins), but even that idea is discredited on the last track — ʽYou Got To Be Ready For Loveʼ is a campy proto-disco number that is as far removed from Bonnie's artistic inclinations as possible (as they hop through the chorus, I cannot help imagining the lady in ABBA-like glitter, grooving along to the good vibe, and thinking back on how far people are ready to go for vague «image demand» purposes).

Nothing, except for that last track, is properly «bad» — the ballads have occasional hooks, the material has been chosen with intelligence (after all, covering Joni Mitchell and John Prine can hardly get one accused of bad taste, right?), and Raitt still has at least the distinctive feature of being able to make a transition to «rough blueswoman snap» mode whenever she feels the song might demand it: an important footnote, because neither a Joni Mitchell nor a Karen Carpenter could have managed this trick. Unfortunately, she does not resort to it too often, not to mention that sometimes, due to the nature of the material, it just makes her seem like a Nashville cowgirl, and that ain't nothing special, either. In the end, Streetlights simply streamlines her talent, instead of allowing it to develop into something truly outstanding — and that, woe and alas, is pretty much the way it would generally stay throughout the rest of her career. 

1 comment:

  1. That seems like a damn shame; Ragovoy is the guy that co-wrote "Piece of My Heart" and is the real name of Norman Meade, the one who wrote "Time Is on My Side". It's not only Bonnie Raitt's career that was going downhill, but his too.

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