It doesn’t matter who wrote it, or who sang it. Once Bettye LaVette gets hold of it, it’s hers. You never have any trouble understanding where she’s coming from. Her enunciation is crisp as her intentions: to whack you over the head and punch you in the gut, leaving you stunned and speechless.
Even though she deconstructs songs to the point of razing them down to their foundation, LaVette’s more of an resurrectionist than a demolition diva. For her latest, LaVette takes on an eclectic array of genres and artists from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.
LaVette is adamant that she not be labeled a soul singer. “A soul singer is anyone who sings soulfully and with all their soul,”Lavette says. “I think that could be anybody. I am a rhythm and blues singer-that was what they called it when I first started singing. You can’t just up and change it, that’s like changing my name to Ida or something.” She says that in ’60s black culture, certain singers were referred to as being soulful, but never identified formally as soul singers. “I’ve never heard a black artist describe themselves as a soul singer unless they were talking to a white person or somebody say from Japan,” she insists.
LaVette’s r&b drenched soulfulness is prominently on display on her latest, the aptly titled Worthy.
Once again, Joe Henry is back at the helm as he was for one of her finest efforts, ’05’s I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, and once again , she does plenty of that.
She takes the Jagger/Richards composition “Complicated,” from 66’s Between the Buttons, and transmogrifies it from the fuzzy, druggy middle Eastern feel of the original into a crisp testimonial with an emotional and a sonic wallop. In addition, it’s a perfect description of LaVette’s work ethic: she’s dedicated/To having her own way/She’s very complicated/Yeah.”
The most soulful cut is James H. Brown’s “Between You and Me and the Wall, You’re A Fool.” Lavette’s vocal just oozes anguish, bleeding all over the track as she berates her man, stalked by Doyle Bramhall’s snaky guitar.
The Beatles’ “Wait” is transformed so radically you won’t believe it’s the same little jangly piece of pop froth from ’65’s Rubber Soul. LaVette pours so much pain in her missive that it sounds as if her voice might break as badly as her heart, but she manages to get through it, but not before sanding all the smooth off.
But it’s not all about LaVette wallowing in misery. “Step Away” is a triumphant boast, a reaffirmation of her status as R&b’s queen diva. And even though she shows her considerable strength and determination, there are still questions: “Did I come on too strong / Did I care to much/Did I not care enough?” she asks, then answers herself with the grit and fire that we’ve come to expect from her over her fifty year career: “I’m still standing here with my feet planted firmly on the ground.”
Worthy – Bettye LaVette