Sunday, July 14, 2013

Indistinct Raitt: Sweet Forgiveness Is Not Enough To Forgive Bonnie!

The Good: Good voice, Decent guitarwork, One or two lyrical moments
The Bad: Largely indistinct, Mostly bland lyrics, Nothing impressive or unique, Performing, SHORT!
The Basics: Despite the elements of greatness that define Bonnie Raitt as a master guitarist being present, Sweet Forgiveness is a fairly generic assembly of pop-rock songs.

Every now and then, I encounter an album that I label as "indistinct." Largely they are disc that I sit and listen to on repeat over and over again for five or more rotations and afterward, I couldn't tell anyone what it was I just listened to. Songs on indistinct albums blend together with none standing out, none capturing the listener, none impressing the listener as something different, unique or even emblematic of the talent of the musical artist in question. I recall that sense with the Loreena McKennitt album To Drive the Cold Winter Away (reviewed here!), as well as the Seal album Hu manbe ing (reviewed here!). I've recently begun listening to Bonnie Raitt to expand my musical knowledge a bit more and I think what made her debut so difficult for me to review (though that review is here!), was that it truly was indistinct Bonnie Raitt. As a budding artist, Raitt had nothing on her debut that set her apart from virtually any other country/folk/bluegrass artist just starting out. At the very least, she was trying and she had two tracks that were her own. Sadly, by the time her album Sweet Forgiveness comes along, she is relegated to the role of mere performer and the result is an album that is less distinct, more generic, and not truly more satisfying than the album that preceded it six years prior.

Sweet Forgiveness is a ten track album clocking in at a sad thirty-eight minutes, making the compelling argument to combine it with another early work for its c.d. release (this is a poor use of the medium, simply transferring records!). Bonnie Raitt wrote none of the lyrics nor music for any of the ten songs and I suspect that is what contributes to the generic sound and feel of this disc. Raitt takes nothing near a production credit on the album, which leaves the listener with the sense that Raitt is simply performing, rather than creating.

Because this album is being rated higher by me than her debut, I figure it's germane to say why right up front (because my critiques of the album may be truncated as I get bored with writing about how the songs sound mostly like one another). First off, on Sweet Forgiveness, Bonnie Raitt illustrates her ability to sing. She has a lovely voice and on songs like "Two Lives," her pipes are clearly and beautifully displayed. There is something wonderfully heartwrenching about hearing her sing "But he never had a broken heart" ("Two Lives") about a songwriter and her presentation of accompanying background vocalists with wailing demonstrations of pure voice (a tradition continued today by the likes of Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera) on that same song is actually musical (I cannot say the same of so many who have done it recently). She sings cleanly and clearly on her storytelling song "Lousie" enunciating each line perfectly while keeping a beautiful melody going. On this album, it's clear Bonnie Raitt can sing.

Even better, here we have the hints of promised greatness of Raitt as guitarist. Opening the album with some fancy fingerwork on "About To Make Me Leave Home" (an otherwise generic bluegrass-y rock track), Raitt plays the guitar like the master she is considered. Raitt plays multiple guitars, with the stark acoustic on "Louise" to the brash playing on "Gamblin' Man" (which has the country-rock feel to it that defined much of the late '70s/early 80's pop-rock movement, at least from the South), Raitt gets her fingers around it all such that even an amateur or a critic may easily acknowledge that she's a wonderful guitarist. She even hits the electric guitar - and well - on "My Opening Farewell."

The problem is, outside the skill taken to alternate sounds with various guitars, Bonnie Raitt runs into a simple problem on Sweet Forgiveness; in order to illustrate talent with an instrument, one needs to have music that will challenge the player some. The guitarwork (in this case) must be complicated enough to impress or sophisticated enough such that those who do not play guitar can recognize with the ear alone that the music being played is requiring fancy fingerwork and be impressed as a result. Sadly, outside "Gamblin' Man," the songs are not so complex. "Louise" is picked at with such simplicity that the listener feels like it could be anyone playing, even someone just learning the guitar. Sweet Forgiveness - the track - finds Raitt completely sublimating the guitars for her voice, allowing them only to come to prominence when she is not singing. And the guitarwork is fairly generic and simple.

Indeed, outside the rockin' nature of "Gamblin' Man" and the simplicity of "Louise," most of the tracks blend together musically. Sweet Forgiveness has a somewhat gospel sound to it, only because the instrumentals are drown by the singing. But even the vocal presentation is on par in terms of sound and force as, say "Runaway" and "Home." And as far as the instrumentals go, this is a remarkably subdued album as far as complexity goes. Raitt finds a Southern Country-Rock sound and firmly implants herself in that rut for eight of the ten tracks. The result is that much of the album blends together into itself when played repetitively. "Three Time Loser," "Takin' My Time," and "Home" all flow into one another in such a way that leaves the listener unsure exactly what they've heard.

This may be, in part, because none of the lyrics really leap out. I like storytelling songs, yet I cannot tell anyone what "My Opening Farewell" is about, even after listening to this album over six times - in a row. The only line in the entire track that I remember is "there's a train leaving every day" ("My Opening Farewell") and I think the only reason that line stands out is because Raitt sings it clearly, above the murky guitars and pianos; it's part of as crescendo.

I understand that there are fans of Bonnie Raitt out there who might want to defend this album - indeed, fans often leap to defense of their artists in a way that is admirable - but objectively, this album is a musical one-trick pony that relegates an artist who CAN write music and lyrics to simply performing the visions of others. That's sad and so is this disc.

I'll say the best track is "Gamblin' Man," simply because it was the most distinct. The rest of the album is likely to be forgotten by me the moment I pop in the next disc for listening and review.

For other female artist of the month artists, please check out my reviews of:
The Collection - Alanis Morissette
Liz Phair - Liz Phair
Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions -Linda Rondstadt


Check out how this album stacks up against every other album and single I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page where works are put in order from best to worst!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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