Short Cuts

Bonnie Raitt
(Capitol Records)

Bonnie Raitt, bless her soul, didn't go the Eric Clapton/Robbie Robertson/Madonna route and "update" her latest album with '90s electronica influences. What she did do was shun the smooth sound of her last four recordings in favor of a more natural, almost live feel. On the aptly titled Fundamental, Raitt digs down to her musical roots and comes up with her most diverse record to date. Her bluesy, well-seasoned slide guitar lends itself to funk, soul, pop, and reggae grooves, and the results are triumphant.

"I Will Not Be Denied" was Raitt's battle cry on her multiplatinum album Nick of Time (1989), and here she rallies around the opening track, "The Fundamental Things." This song pretty much says it all. "Let's run naked through these city streets," Raitt sings in her soulful voice, "Let's get back to the fundamental things/Let's get back to the elements of style/Let's get back to simple skin on skin/Let's get back to the fundamental things."

Raitt wrote or cowrote only five of the eleven songs on Fundamental, but she's always been a masterful interpreter of others' compositions. "Cure for Love," written by David Hidalgo and Luis Perez (both of Los Lobos), gets the slow, bluesy treatment from Raitt while Hidalgo sits in on guitar. She also performs a faithful acoustic rendering of the J.B. Lenoir/Willie Dixon classic "Round & Round," with strong backing vocals by Joey Spampinato (bass) and Steve Donnelly (guitar).

The Raitt original "Spit of Love" is an eerie rocker, anchored by coproducer Mitchell Froom's groovy keyboards and Raitt's distorted slide guitar. Raitt delivers her most poetic lyrics here: "Callin' the Furies' carrion choir/Singin' me back upon the pyre/I'm roasting on that spit of love again." Other highlights on Fundamental include the delicate, country-tinged "Fearless Love" and "Blue for No Reason," a catchy pop song reminiscent of Sheryl Crow's best.

At age 48 with nine Grammy awards to polish on rainy days, Raitt was free to do what she wanted with Fundamental. But instead of "experimenting" like some of her peers, she produced a collection of vibrant and accessible songs that will still be relevant long after the uniform drumbeats of the late '90s are gone.

-- Jonathan Lesser

Sax Pax for a Sax

Best known for reciting poetry and playing music on the streets of Manhattan -- often while dressed in full Viking regalia -- the musician known as Moondog disappeared about 25 years ago. Some folks figured he'd been locked up, others that he had died. It turns out that Moondog is alive and well and living in Germany. Although he's recorded sporadically over the years in Europe, Sax Pax for a Sax is the reclusive expatriate's first domestic release in 26 years.

Moondog has long been an underground legend. He's been interviewed by columnist Walter Winchell, photographed by Diane Arbus, and befriended by Marlon Brando. He recorded for the legendary Folkways Records label, performed at Carnegie Hall, and appeared in a film with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (Conrad Brooks' Chappaqua). Janis Joplin and the Kronos Quartet have recorded his compositions, and Philip Glass, Elvis Costello, and Beck are among his admirers.

Sax Pax for a Sax should win Moondog some new fans. A much different affair than his rumbling, sometimes rambling, recordings of yore, it's a surprisingly tight piece of work: classically composed pieces, jazz-inspired harmonies, offbeat rhythms, and hypnotic melodies. On most of the disc's 21 tracks, the composer beats on a bass drum as various combinations of saxophones step forward to suggest basic themes and establish certain moods. The bouncing, bopping "Bird's Lament" and the cabaret-drenched "Paris" are among the most evocative. A jaunty chorus (featuring the British art-rockers Peter Hammill and Andrew Davis) occasionally joins the horn voicings. Bits of piano, timpani, and double bass provide color and add to the fun.

With Moondog's ever-present drum pulsing in the mix, listening to Sax Pax is sort of like hearing the World Saxophone Quartet playing show tunes on an Indian reservation. Confounding and pleasing, it shows that Moondog and his music are livelier than ever.

-- John Lewis

Dan Bern
Fifty Eggs
(WORK Group)

Didn't this guy just put out his first album, like, last week? Actually, it came out late in 1997 (to much critical acclaim), and now the second one's out already. The man has energy: On Fifty Eggs, Bern screams about Tiger Woods, sings honestly about his sister, does the social humor bit, occasionally slips into triteness, and generally comes on like an indulgent rock star who just happens to be a folkie.

You know Dan Bern's nasal tenor the minute you hear it: He sounds a little like Dylan on the slow songs, like Elvis Costello on the fast ones. More impressive are his words, characterized by both wit and brevity in even the tenderest of songs. In "Oh Sister" he sings: "After I showed some guys I could drink/You picked me off the lawn I think/And led me to the kitchen sink/Where I got rid of it."

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