The Rolling Stones aren’t the only act celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. Bettye LaVette released her first single in 1962 and, unlike The Stones, she is making some of the best music of her career 50 years later.
LaVette was a relatively obscure soul singer until about seven years ago when, after a few reissues of her classic 60s sides, Anti- Records signed her and put her in the studio with Joe Henry and The Drive-By Truckers for her 2007 album The Scene Of The Crime, which was nominated for a Grammy.
Her most recent album was 2010’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which found Bettye covering tunes by The Who, The Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Moody Blues. To me, that album was something of a misfire. The material didn’t suit the singer and LaVette sounded lie she was trying to compensate for that fact by over-singing just about every line of every song.
This time around, Anti- has hooked Bettye up with producer Craig Street, whose previous credits include Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me. Street has provided the singer with an excellent choice of songs, ranging from the familiar (Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy) to the obscure (Sly Stone’s Thankful N’ Thoughtful, Beth Nielsen Chapman’s Fair Enough).
Street has also surrounded the singer with group of studio musicians who sound like the perfect band for Bettye LaVette. For the record, they are: Chris Bruce (guitars), Jonathan Wilson (guitars, banjo), Glenn Patscha (piano, keys), Jennifer Condos (bass) and J.J. Johnson (drums). Together they provide a backing that is soulful and subtle, with just a touch a country, thanks largely to Patscha’s piano playing. The remind me of the legendary Muscle Shoals musicians of the late 60s.
The album opens with Bob Dylan’s Everything Is Broken. LaVette’s gorgeous, lived-in voice is supported by a funky beat with plenty of bite and accentuated by a scorching guitar solo.
Next comes a version of The Black Keys’ I’m Not The One, that sounds like it was written for LaVette. “I was born tired and I still ain’t got rested” she sings.
There are two versions of Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town. The first, is a mid-tempo country/soul reading that simmers with anger just under its surface. The other take, the “slow version”, closes the album, and is a seven minute stripped down production with martial-style snare drum and very spare use of guitar and piano.
In between those two, Bettye LaVette digs into the heart and soul of songs by Sly Stone, Neil Young and Tom Waits. Her reading of Waits’ Yesterday Is Here is among the album’s highlights, thanks, in part, to the judicious use of horns and reeds.
The only track that didn’t work for me was Crazy. It’s a slow-down version that finds LaVette wringing every ounce of emotion out of every word. The result is tedious and draining.
But that’s the only misfire here. Otherwise this is as fine a soul album as you will hear being released in 2012.
Click here to listen to Yesterday Is Here from Thankful N’ Thoughtful: