Welcome to the top 25 for 2010 Countdown! Each day we'll countdown, today we continue with number 19, culminating with our (okay, my) numero uno album of the year. When they're handy I'll borrow my earlier reviews from the KC Free Press, as I have in this case. In the event one of my top 25 selections isn't something I've reviewed previously I'll dash off a new review.
I welcome all comments, criticisms, questions and dialog in general.
25. Jon Langford - Old Devils (Bloodshot)
24. Vaselines - Sex with an X (Sub Pop)
23. Drive-By Truckers - The Big To-Do (ATO)
22. Magnetic Fields - Realism (Nonesuch)
21. Dum Dum Girls - I Will Be (Sub Pop)
20. Peter Case - Wig! (Yep Roc)
Lavette’s is the story of a brilliant singer who was more often than not in the wrong place at the wrong time, who soldiered on despite a lack of chart action or record deals, and who has now made the most of her opportunities (this is her third release on Anti-Epitaph).
Beloved by a handful of record collecting soul and funk freaks, Bettye Lavette never had a breakthrough hit or sustained success, despite recording several choice sides in the Sixties and Seventies. Lavette had an aborted tenure with Atlantic Records (a label that should have found a home for her). For Atlantic, she recorded an album with the Muscles Shoals crew at Fame studios that sat on the shelf for almost 30 years. After that, she recorded less frequently, enjoying one disco era club hit “Doin’ the Best That I Can.” She kept working, though, never leaving the rhythm n’blues clubs that gave her a living, and working on Broadway for six years alongside the great Cab Calloway in Bubbling Brown Sugar. It was the release in 2000, by French fan Gilles Petard, of those long shelved Atlantic sessions under the title of Souvenirs (originally slated as Child of the Seventies) that helped jump-start her recording career.
A brief listen to her scattered discography makes one thing clear. Lavette was a classic song stylist trapped in a raspy soul-stirrer’s voice. She treated the contemporary musical landscape much as Frank Sinatra or Sarah Vaughan did in their prime; she didn’t care where a song came from or even if it initially spoke to her. Her interest was transformative. Songs were for her to own, not just to interpret. But by the Seventies, Lavette found herself in a singer-songwriter obsessed climate that valued, whether it was Joni Mitchell or Stevie Wonder, apparently autobiographical, even confessional qualities and made small allowance for the interpreter. You know, wrong place, wrong time.
Upon signing with Anti Records (an Epitaph Records imprint), label head Andy Kaulkin paired Lavette with producer Joe Henry. Henry had produced an ace set for Solomon Burke called Don’t You Give Up on Me that concentrated on songs from contemporary singer-songwriters. His approach with Lavette was similar, and similarly winning. Her sometime radical re-interpretations of songs by John Hiatt, Joan Armatrading, Lucinda Williams and Dolly Parton (among others) introduced Lavette to a new generation of fans. Kaulkin’s next idea, to combine Lavette with Patterson Hood (his dad is Roger Hood, Muscle Shoals bassist and a contributor to Lavette’s long lost Atlantic sessions) and his band the Drive-by Truckers, was even better.
The aptly titled Scene of the Crime brought Lavette back to Fame studio, this time with a hard rocking Southern band. She fell right into the Truckers’ swampy hybrid of the Rolling Stones, Crazy Horse and Southern soul. The fiery Scene of the Crime’s emotional peak was “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye Lavette)” - proof that Lavette could step to the plate as a writer - a scarred, soar, but defiantly triumphant testimony to her power and resilience. It was the kind of searing soul that you almost thought no one made anymore.
Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook sounds like a dubious proposition at first. The catalyst for these sessions was her wrenching take on the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” first delivered at the Kennedy Center Honors 2008 segment devoted to the Who. If you’ve ever seen this performance you were knocked or you’re dead. YouTube this sucker — you can see Daltrey’s and Townshend’s jaws drop as she puts new life into their Quadrophenia warhorse.
Interpretations doesn’t work at every turn. When Lavette sings “sometimes I’m so carefree” in “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (here associated with the Animals, but I bet Lavette may be as familiar with Nina Simone’s take) it’s not believable, and the uplift in the chorus when Burdon sings is missing. “Isn’t It a Pity” is drenched in soul, but lacks the centered grace of the George Harrison original.
Lavette’s soul-stew, method actor’s approach to singing really scores on several of these songs. The depths she reveals in Zeppelin’s “All My Love” make Robert Plant sound like a crooning bobby soxer. Lavette’s transformation of the soulful, but youthful, trippy sentiments of Traffic’s “No Time to Live” makes them sound like the last words of Ray Charles. Thinking of her old friends Marvin Gaye and David Ruffin, Lavette transforms Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” (a forlorn missive to a mind-gone Syd Barrett) into an even deeper message to the dearly departed.
Producer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist Rob Mathes keeps it real and soulful, but amuses himself and astute listeners with subtle references. “Wish You Were Here” quotes cleverly from Warren Zevon’s “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” and the version here of Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” borrows the opening feel of the Allman’s “Midnight Rider.” The whole cast of accompanists is stellar, but Charley Drayton on drums stands out. He gives these songs everything they need, appreciating that sometimes they don’t need much.
Lavette’s swampy-pop take on Ringo is another highlight of this set. She covers Paul and John too; McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” is spot-on and among the more straight-ahead renditions on Interpretations. The album kicks off with her transportation of John Lennon’s “The Word” to a land of funk located in the exact geographic point between Memphis and New Orleans. It’s tempting to compare her to Tina Turner on cuts like this, but it’s been a long time since Tina has been this invested or this good. Lavette recalls Ray Charles sometimes and Etta James, but her comfort zone with material is a lot bigger than Etta’s.
Lavette’s genius is clear on her blindingly confident version of the Stones’ “Salt of the Earth.” She manages to strip the song of its detached ironies while retaining the distance central to the bridge by re-imagining the masses (“they don’t look real to me; in fact, they look so strange”) as the absurd, condescending version of working class reality depicted in ‘Reality’ television (yes, she changes the line “strange beauty shows” to “reality shows”). Lavette also updates references like the one from polio to HIV. By the end of this performance she owns the song.
And that’s what great interpreters do. They make a song their own. The reservoirs of guts, smarts and soul that it takes to do this successfully is partly responsible for the diminished number of singers who are good at it, compared to the pre-rock, pre singer-songwriter eras that routinely coupled great composers with able singers. Lavette is in a class of her own. She’s a great soul singer, and more – she’s more of an artist than ninety-nine percent of the deluded knuckleheads who insist of writing all of their own bad material.
The song that started this set in motion is included here in its original live version from the Kennedy Center Honors. “Love Reign O’er Me” still blows you away. The utter confidence, investment and authority she brings to this song are staggering. And if Interpretations doesn’t succeed at every turn, it’s deep, soulful and brilliant enough to make another fine chapter in Bettye Lavette's emerging success story.
Reverberating: 8.5 (original), upgraded to 8.7