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Midweek Music Break: Bonnie Raitt, “Million Miles” and “You Can’t Fail Me Now”

November 21st, 2012 · 6 Comments

[Photo: Bonnie Raitt, by Marina Chavez. I love this photograph of her,
which (to my eye) doesn’t look “staged” at all — but utterly
knowing.]

Maybe this is true for women, too. But I’m certain that men of a certain age may recall, circa 1989, watching Bonnie Raitt flirt with a boyish Dennis Quaid in the video for “Thing Called Love.” (Quaid did some flirting of his own, apparently.) They may recall strongly identifying with his response — not just to her, but to her music. What a great song and performance that was. But really, that rollicking Wow, I bet SHE’S fun! number barely hinted at Raitt’s range, which she’d already established in nearly 20 years of developing her craft.

Rolling Stone seems to get it: not only have they placed her as #89 on their list of top 100 guitarists, they also rank her as #50 among the top 100 singers. (And for good measure, her Nick of Time — the album which included “Thing Called Love” — stands as #230 of their top 500 albums.)

Her newest album, Slipstream, is her first in years. Both the guitar and the voice shine throughout; less obviously, she has included no songs of her own, but demonstrates exceptional taste in other songwriters’ work. I’m particularly taken by the third and fourth tracks, listed respectively in the title of this post.

Bob Dylan composed “Million Miles” for his 1997 album Time Out of Mind. Dylan’s version is a rather strange, highly-reverb’d, almost talking-blues piece. In Raitt’s hands, it becomes — without question — music. I love the guitar here, especially, featured in not one but three instrumental breaks — including a glorious, luxurious almost full minute and a half to close the track. Raitt uses a glass slide for her guitar playing (at one time the sawed-off neck of a Mateus wine bottle), worn on her middle finger. What she does with it here transcends any language I can come up with; how to summarize a musical instrument that plinks sweetly as a harp at the upper register, then tumbles-and-slides smoothly downhill to a jazz-bass simulacrum?

[Below, click Play button to begin Million Miles. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 6:27 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

[Lyrics]

The narrator of “Million Miles” has almost had it with you (whoever you are, you cold, distant bastard). But oh, she’s still got enough sass and growl in her to cock a finger and summon you: “Rock me, pretty baby, rock me all at once / Rock me for a little while, rock me for a couple of months / And I’ll rock you too.”

The next track turns the mood around. In “You Can’t Fail Me Now” (by Joseph Lee Henry and Loudon Wainwright III), the sass-and-growl is gone. Pleading, anxious, and almost despairing, as though aware — despite the imperative in the title — that she’s out of chances, the singer nevertheless gives it one last shot. Raitt’s interpretation allows room for a single, contemplative instrumental, and it’s nothing to sneer at. But her voice carries this song.

[Below, click Play button to begin You Can’t Fail Me Now. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 4:19 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

[Lyrics]

I read an interview with Raitt recently in which she confessed that she’s never had any voice training and, really, doesn’t think much about how to sing. Put a statement like that alongside her voice on “You Can’t Fail Me Now” and you’ve pretty much got an answer to the question, What is art?

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Tags: Midweek Music Break · Music

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Rachel // Nov 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    She is sublime. A long time favorite of mine, especially the Nick of Time album. Thing Called Love is great fun, and then how can anyone not be moved by Luck of the Draw’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”?
    PS – Happy Turkey Day!

  • 2 John // Nov 23, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Oh, Rachel — good to see you here! (And very happy that it was BR who brought you.)

    In some of the reviews of her new album, writers mention “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and I meant to do that too. Thanks for covering for me. :)

    Hope your own T-Day was great!

  • 3 s.o.m.e. one's brudder // Nov 26, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Okay, NOW go back and listen to this next to “Streetlights” and tell me you don’t get chills! If you have never listened to “Streetlights” – shame on you! You’ll be forgiven though, as it would make a wonderful way for me to put a check mark next to your name for Christmas shopping.

  • 4 John // Nov 27, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Y’know, from what I’ve read about it, the Streetlights album never really “called” to me. It sounds like it was an interesting but trying-a-little-too-hard experiment for Bonnie Raitt. I can see why she might have wanted to stretch into other dimensions, but the addition of strings and so on just feels (to me) wrong for her. Somebody more pop-py like Carly Simon or even Linda Ronstadt could do that, but Raitt just… I don’t know.

    As you’ve guessed, I’m speaking from ignorance (skeptical ignorance at that) rather than first-hand knowledge. But it does sound like a weird “Let’s try THIS!” concept album.

    Over to you. :)

  • 5 s.o.m.e. one's brudder // Nov 27, 2012 at 9:59 am

    While, admittedly, not showing off her geetar chops to their fullest, her voice – yowza! I really feel the kinship between this and Slipstream because of the use of THAT instrument, and the use of the songs of others (Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Bill Payne [Little Feat], John Prine, Allen Toussaint) to show of that instrument. This has actually been a pretty good trait of hers on several albums. Take a look at the whole Bonnie songbook, if inclined.

    IMHO, not particularly troubling “orchestration” except on the final track “You Got to be Ready For Love”. Given the 1974 release date, it may have been that they didn’t know what to do with a woman that could wail on a blues guitar AND sing the pants off Linda Ronstadt. Ah, the wisdom of years….
    Next?

  • 6 RAMH@5: <em>Cherchez les Femmes</em> (A Playlist) // Apr 20, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    […] Million Miles […]

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