Bettye LaVette - Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook (2010)

Bettye LaVette
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With Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, the self-proclaimed "Great Lady of Soul" delivers the third in what has been an inspiring series of reinterpreted covers that is definitively the platinum standard for how to credibly create a compelling homage to the classics and their originators. Viewers of the December 2008 Kennedy Center Honors will stand up and cheer that Bettye LaVette's astonishing live performance of The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" in tribute to Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey is included on a set of rock standards and obscure jams that is nothing less than a tour de force of soul. Everyone from Elton John to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and Traffic are given a do-over that breaks these favorites wide open and reveals something wholly new inside, thanks to a vocal stylist who is herself a national treasure.

With Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, the self-proclaimed "Great Lady of Soul" delivers the third in what has been an inspiring series of reinterpreted covers that is definitively the platinum standard for how to credibly create a compelling homage to the classics and their originators. Viewers of the December 2008 Kennedy Center Honors will stand up and cheer that Bettye LaVette's astonishing live performance of The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" in tribute to Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey is included on a set of rock standards and obscure jams that is nothing less than a tour de force of soul. Everyone from Elton John to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and Traffic are given a do-over that breaks these favorites wide open and reveals something wholly new inside, thanks to a vocal stylist who is herself a national treasure.

Sadly, the first time I became aware of the incredible Ms. LaVette was in 2005, when every critic on God's green was deservedly singing the praises of I've Got Some Hell To Raise, LaVette's first mature collection of searing rock, folk, blues, country and, of course, soul covers. The internationally acclaimed project was comprised solely of compositions by women artists and drew from the ample wells of Dolly Parton, Fiona Apple, Sinead O'Conner, Rosanne Cash, Joan Armatrading, Lucinda Williams and Bobbie Cryner, among others. I've Got Some Hell To Raise and its 2007 successor Scene of The Crime for Anti Records made an overnight sensation out of an artist then 43 years (now 48 years) in the game. A Detroit singer and Broadway star (Bubbling Brown Sugar) previously known for cutting Northern Soul sides going all the way back to 1962's Top Ten R&B single "My Man, He's A Lovin' Man" for Atlantic, LaVette cut 30 singles-five of ‘em Top 40 R&B hits-for no less than nine different labels over 20 years before her first full-length album, Tell Me A Lie, was released by Motown in 1982 (an earlier LP, Child of the Seventies, recorded in 1972 was shelved by Atlantic). Its commercial failure kept LaVette in the shadows, until the Muscle Shoals recording, Child of The Seventies, was discovered and finally released from the vaults as Souvenirs in 2000. The cult success of Souvenirs lead to her 2003 award-winning project A Woman Like Me, garnering LaVette a W.C. Handy Award for "Comeback Blues Album of The Year" in 2004, and ultimately a new label deal with Anti Records, the label that has kept the LaVette renaissance steadily unfolding ever since.

Anti has kept LaVette in the spotlight with a series of unconventional cover albums that includes the download only A Change Is Gonna Come acoustic EP dropped earlier in the year, each eschewing traditional R&B cover standards for those LaVette can inventively re-imagine until rock, folk, and country are transformed into new, raw blues and soul staples. Switching out melody, tempo, verse - whatever it takes to gut a song's insides and replace them with her own blood red emotions - LaVette proves herself the preeminent interpreter of song, much like the Sinatra and Vaughn she studied in her day. Produced by Rob Mathes (Carly Simon, Rod Stewart, Vanessa Williams), Michael Stevens (Clint Eastwood, Hans Zimmer), and LaVette herself, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook rivals I've Got Some Hell To Raise as the preeminent soul album of the vast LaVette catalog.

In a project almost classically Americana in its orchestrations (think: producer Craig Street), producers keep the surroundings relatively clean and straightforward to ensure LaVette is the focal point. Throughout, key strokes lightly support, strings discriminate in their arrivals and bows, and guitars only blare brightly to prove the occasional point. Sometimes the scorched earth instrumentation reflects the barren, acridity of LaVette's anguished tones like on Traffic's haunting, stripped down piano ballad, "No Time To Live," and McCartney's thoroughly revelatory "Maybe I'm Amazed," which in LaVette's hands becomes the ultimate torch song. Well, LaVette's slow drag on the exploding "Nights In White Satin" may give the McCartney cut a run for its money for high drama. She similarly trusts the lyrics and refuses to rely on the original pleasing melody of John's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," making it a desperate cry you never heard before, but was always present in the writing.    

That's not to say there is no bounce to this collection. LaVette's take on The Beatles "The Word" grooves plenty, with Naw'lins horns and gospel background harmonies to boot. The bass and high hat opener for the deliriously fun, "Why Does Love Got To Be So Bad," is one rocked out joint, showing that the slyly playful LaVette can step to Tina Turner for a soul rock edition of Sisters In The Name of Love. There is also a strong backbeat and a blues drive to LaVette's rusty nail phrasing on Led Zeppelin's melodically transformed "All My Love," so much so it's almost unrecognizable from its origins. The light funk, staccato chorus, and open guitar on "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" gives the classic a fresh flavor and lifts it from all the faithfully trite covers of it that came before.

All of LaVette's finest work is about deconstructing a song to find the heart of it and then nakedly championing its soul in the most honest, rawest way she knows how. It was this skill and bravery that brought audiences to their feet with her stark rendition of The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me "at the Kennedy Center Honors and at the Obama Inauguration Concert where her duet with Bon Jovi on "A Change Is Gonna Come" stole the show from Re-Re's church hat. Without the five-octave range and acrobatic runs that pass as emotion today, LaVette is a technician worthy to be studied the way jazz students study Holiday or LaVette once studied Vaughn. She's an artist's artist and this, the best of her renaissance projects, is a new standard in creative excellence. With this powerful set, anything less than a Grammy nod would be criminal. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 

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