Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream. Nobody captures the quiet pain of twilight like Bonnie Raitt. From her very first album over 40 years ago, there was such a sense of longing in her vocals that Raitt quickly became a queen of the brokenhearted. That's not to say she couldn't mix it up with the best of them, and over the course of a long and successful career has shown enough different sides to be a standard bearer for American music at its best. Still, it's when the light grows dim and the shades get drawn that Bonnie Raitt works her strongest spell.
All great Bonnie Raitt albums, and there have been many, are an embarrassment of riches. They veer from street boogie funkathons to razor blade weepers, and somehow always manage to sound like they come straight from the loudly beating heart of a true believer in the power of music to take us to the other side. Maybe that's because Raitt first felt the gift of inspiration from early bluesmen, and never forgot the wow-ness of those pioneers. Or possibly the fact she's equally at home in front of a microphone or handling a Fender Stratocaster guitar gives her an extra kick. Either way, it's always there, slightly submerged below the surface so she never runs the risk of showing off, but ready and able to pull the trigger when needed.
Raitt's other great weapon is an uncanny ability to find songs that hit the sweet spot. She's been a one-person discovery team of the very best songwriters going all the way back to her beginning, and it continues on Slipstream whether it's three Al Anderson gems, two Bob Dylan obscurities or turning a Gerry Rafferty original into a certified hit single. Her band has a way of building the perfect foundation for any style she chooses, and then on four other songs here producer Joe Henry opens a whole new sonic world for her to explore, complete with guest guitarist Bill Frisell providing some eureka solos.
"God Only Knows" ends Raitt's first new album in seven years, and it is the kind of song that is really more of a prayer, but one that defines the woman as much as her red hair and badass bottleneck guitar. Not to be confused with the Beach Boys classic, this is a Joe Henry original that captures the spirit as it struggles to stay strong. With only Patrick Warren's keyboards behind her, the singer searches to find solid ground under her feet, and by the last verse lands looking upward: "Well God only knows that we can do / no more or less than He'll allow / Well God only knows that we mean well / God only knows that we just don't know how." There it is, simple as day, someone asking for the understanding we all need, unafraid to look in the face of what is lacking. And that is exactly what puts this artist in a party of one, and why come hell or high water when you ride with Bonnie Raitt you are riding with the Queen.
Albama Shakes, Boys & Girls. Last year when the song "Hold On" escaped out of the Alabama backwoods onto the nation's airwaves, it was like a door had opened on a new star. Singer Brittany Howard had such a deep-rooted soulfulness in her voice and spirit that she turned on the bright lights immediately. Right behind was a three-piece band that had burned off all the excess of rock and roll and found a groove that felt like it was tattooed into our DNA.
Word of mouth started to grow loud around the Alabama Shakes, and naturally there were skeptics who smelled hype. Not true, because the band itself kept doing what it does best: write, sing, play, and stay away from TMZ. As listeners waited for the debut album it got to be a parlor game if the group had the goods or not. Now that Boys & Girls is here, it's clear the goods are there but not quite captured completely on the album's 11 songs. At least they didn't throw in with mega-producer du jour and go Lady Gaga on us.
All that said, Howard and band are stunning, her voice a revelation of how one person can make a strong stand. She weaves notes and words into a warm and seductive quilt of fine feeling without ever having to imitate. That's pure talent. She could make a believer out of almost anyone, and while the Shakes' new songs sound somewhat unfinished it doesn't stop the players from hitting the monkey nerve all the way through. There hasn't been a band this lean and mean since Creedence Clearwater Revival was ruling the charts. It's obvious there are great things ahead for this little ol' band from Athens, Alabama, and Brittany Howard herself has captured sunshine on a cloudy day. Janis Joplin would be proud, probably ready to share some Southern Comfort with a real soul sister.
Ben Sandmel, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans. When it comes to New Orleans characters, Ernie K-Doe pretty much wore the crown. And that is truly saying something, because there has been no shortage of talented and unique musicians cruising those hallowed streets. Think Professor Longhair, Little Richard, Esquerita, James Booker right up to rappers like Lil' Wayne. But K-Doe takes the King Cake, because even after his death in 2001 his wife Antoinette made a life-size mannequin of the singer so he could still do shows. No fooling.
Ben Sandmel's book is a full-blown E-ticket ride on the Ernie K-Doe Express. He is able to capture New Orleans life like no one really has since Ignatius J. Reilly made his auspicious debut in A Confederacy of Dunces over 30 years ago. Whoa! It is such a wide wonderful world that exists in the Crescent City, but one usually beyond the grasp of most writers to put into words the alluring weirdness and downright delight of the place. But that is no problem for Sandmel, who has lived and played music there long enough to know what the true story is.
K-Doe, of course, is what the book is really about, and let it be said that the man invented himself out of all that magical humidity and ozone-charged air, starting with his last name, with an eye towards conquering the world. Hit singles like "Mother-in-Law" and "A Certain Girl," crazy cross-country tours, hanging with a Beatle, and generally cutting up like the world was his own oyster on the half-shell, no one had more fun than him. As he always said, "I'm cocky but I'm good," which may be one of the biggest understatements in history. At the end of it all, it's hard to imagine a biography big enough to do Ernie K-Doe justice, but that's exactly what this tome achieves. It's the next best thing to sitting in the Mother-in-Law Lounge on Claiborne Street with Ernie K-Doe himself as he asks you to buy him a drink in his own bar. To which he could only add, "Hey man, it ain't nothin' but a wheel." Burn, K-Doe, burn.