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POP MUSIC | SPRING ALBUM ROUNDUP

Throwing Dirt on Raitt's Pristine Sound

** 1/2 BONNIE RAITT "Fundamental" Capitol

April 05, 1998|Marc Weingarten

Unruffled tastefulness has been Bonnie Raitt's trademark ever since she struck pay dirt with 1989's "Nick of Time," an album that split the difference between middle-of-the-road polish and Raitt's swaggering vocals and slide guitar work. On her three albums since then, the veteran singer hasn't strayed too far from the center stripe, and her music has suffered because of it.

So it's refreshing to find that Raitt has tinkered with the formula a bit on her latest album, replacing longtime producer Don Was with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, the duo whose uniquely skewed approach on albums by such artists as Suzanne Vega and Los Lobos has earned it a reputation as one of rock's most inventive production teams.

Froom and Blake's presence is immediately felt on the album's first track, "The Fundamental Things." The drums creak and rattle, the guitar moans, and Raitt's voice is tweaked with just a hint of reverb. It all coheres nicely; Raitt sounds energized working within this grittier context.

But even though "Fundamental" successfully throws some dirt onto Raitt's pristine sound, her musical approach remains in a serious rut. Strip the fancy production touches away and you're left with more of the same lovelorn roots-rock that Raitt's been playing for nearly a decade. In fact, no fewer than five of the 11 tracks have the word "love" in the title.

"Fundamental's" adventurous production is a step in the right direction for Raitt. Next time she should try to choose material that's equally ambitious.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

Hear the Music

* Excerpts from these albums and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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