Bettye LaVette - Thankful N’ Thoughtful
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She’s a latter-day legend despite 50 years this year in the business. From the doo-wop era to psychedelic soul through disco to funk, new age, New Jack Swing, smooth soul, neo-soul, hip hop soul and now auto-tuned Euro-pop, there has been an unwavering Bettye LaVette steadily belting heartfelt lyrics with all the pathos life has to serve. That most Americans only heard LaVette for the first time at Obama’s Presidential Inauguration or that year’s Kennedy Center Honors (where her rendition of “Love Reign O’Er Me” literally brought the house down in both tears and thunderous applause) is Law & Order level criminal. Over the last decade, critics and enthusiasts have helped rouse the diminutive lady with the powerhouse voice to commercial and critical prominence through a series of cover albums that transformed the American and British Songbooks of folk, rock, and pop into searing bluesy soul with almost too much life to bear. The fifth in a series that began with 2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise and was left off with Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook in 2010, Thankful N’ Thoughtful transcribes all the brittle pain and frustrations of a nation only just barely emerging from the worst economic landscape since the Great Depression.
Her instrument and trademark mastery of phrasing is a perfect match for the spirit of the times: strong, enduring, gritty, but heavy with the alienation and longing for something elusively better, maybe something earlier that feels forever lost. The song titles of Thankful N’ Thoughtful alone give you some idea of the melancholic tone: “I’m Tired,” “Everything Is Broken,” “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” “The More I Search (The More I Die).” But rather than depress, these Americana folk, blues and country songs from the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Ewan MacColl, Tom Waits, Kim McLean and the like instead affirm, comfort and make one feel a little less lonely with the dystopia that sometimes invades an insomniac’s thoughts in the midnight hours. Her “Whole Lotta Lonely” alone offers a hug, sage word, and generous prayer for fellow travelers walking alone and there’s not an ounce of schmaltzy sentimentality in its understanding of that solitary walk.
As she did with cuts like Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” and Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” on Interpretations, LaVette steals these songs from their originators and remolds them in her image. She slows down MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town” until its Stephen King view of Our Town is eerily present in every creak and cranny. Her re-arrangement of the melody line on Gnarls Barkley’s oft-covered hit, “Crazy,” is a totally original vision for the song, ensuring that listeners feel that the insanity is seething and bubbling underneath instead of bursting out of itself (it’s kind of like comparing Jack Nicholson’s manically comical version of the Joker to Heath Ledger’s more smolderingly dangerous take). With the help of an electric guitar and shades of psychdelia, LaVette gives some two-step to “Everything Is Broken,” making it very nearly swing. Similarly, “I’m Tired” is anything but, bumping under the able production direction of Craig Street.
A word on Craig Street: this collaboration is akin to the legendary collaboration of producer Johnny Mandel and jazz vocalist Shirley Horn for Here’s to Life in its significance. Street is known for creating Americana soundscapes crunchy with autumn leaves and golden horizons. He’s also known for culling more than enough space within his well-painted canvases to ensure his singer’s instrument shines most. Just ask singer’s singers like Norah Jones, Lizz Wright, Toshi Reagon, John Legend, Me’Shell Ndgéocello or k.d. lang about what Street can do. On a cut like the bonus track “Old,” one can see the majestic nature of their collaboration: Street sparsely surrounding LaVette’s voice with a fairytale shimmer of a twilight sky and LaVette’s confessional voice heavy with lamentations and introspection on the nature of aging. There is heartbreak and wonder coexisting in the same space making something magical and considered for its listener. On the fuller ragtime of “Yesterday Is Here” a versatile Street shows he knows how to fill the streets of LaVette’s New Orleans procession or make it as spare as an evening stroll in the wee small hours of the morning, whatever’s needed to elevate the song and the talent interpreting it with a knowing that few can match.
Thankful N’ Thoughtful, perhaps unintentionally, describes two things: The thankful sentiments of fans that Bettye LaVette never gave up on her dream and made us better for it. Thoughtful characterizes the intelligence with which Bettye LaVette comes to a lyric, a life, an experience—taking her role as the medium for and comfort to so many people’s blues as serious as her voice. Her forthcoming autobiography, A Woman Like Me – The Untold Story, will surely give us more insights into what developed the wisdom ever present in her work, but even if she never shared a word on a page, what Bettye LaVette does with sound already pens the joys and pains that have been her life on the soul of every listening fan gratefully embracing her back. Highly Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson