Bettye LaVette – Transcendental Blues
The pair of tracks that open I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, the transfixing new album by soul singer Bettye LaVette, vividly map the record’s prickly yet fecund emotional terrain. The first is an a cappella reading of Sinead O’Connor’s flinty assertion of self-reliance, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got”. The second is a devastating reinterpretation of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy”, a borderline-metaphysical jeremiad about what it feels like to be robbed of your innermost self.
LaVette’s remake of “I Do Not Want” sounds nothing like the original. Distilling O’Connor’s prolix text to its essentials, she moans the remaining lines unhurriedly and with staggering self-possession, stretching out the vowels as if intoning a field holler. Bereft of accompaniment — and, presumably, of the comfort such company affords — LaVette sings in a craggy rasp of passing through a searing desert. The material and spiritual sustenance she takes with her, she assures us, is enough to fortify her, even though she doesn’t know where her solitary road might lead.
Fuzz-toned guitar barbs rend the parched silence that follows, igniting “Joy”, in which LaVette recounts a much less dignified sojourn than her trek through the desert. “Jo-o-oy,” she bawls to the juking cadence of the opening chorus, wrenching the word back and forth as if trying to get it to taste right in her mouth again. “Oh-oh, my jo-oy/I don’t like it no more,” she goes on, the notes convulsing in her throat. “They took my joy.”
The offending party here isn’t an individual like it is in Williams’ original. LaVette casts her nemesis as a more nebulous and aggregate force — some mix of the happenstance and indifference that has plagued her in city after city where she’s recorded over the years.
Detroit, New York, Memphis, Muscle Shoals: All have proven barren places for LaVette, each a “desert” where she made sublime music, including some two dozen singles for labels ranging from Atlantic to Motown, only to watch her hopes of reaching a wider audience wither. “They had no right to take my joy,” she roars each time the chorus rolls around. “I want it back.”
The emotional extremes that LaVette traverses in “Joy” and “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” strike at the embattled yet resilient heart of her new CD — and, for that matter, at that of her more than 40-year career.
LaVette’s record, which came out on the Anti- label in late September, is an inadvertent concept album, or at least one that she arrived at intuitively. LaVette selected each of its ten songs from a pool of a hundred or so that people involved with the project, including producer Joe Henry, played for her. All were written or co-written by women. Each speaks in some way to what Billie Holiday, with as pregnant a claim about the intersection of self-determination and self-worth as any, was getting at with the line, “God bless the child who’s got [her] own.”
LaVette’s performances on the album inhabit Holiday’s assertion with knowing and womanly resolve. She transforms Dolly Parton’s cautionary “Little Sparrow”, a surreal, sisterly derivative of the Appalachian ballad “The Coo Coo Bird”, into a harrowing oracle from the Delta. She reimagines the proto-feminist woolgathering of Joy Of Cooking’s “Only Time Will Tell” as a funked-up monument to liberation. And she method-acts Aimee Mann’s snarling kiss-off “How Am I Different” as if the part had been written for her. “One more question before I pack,” she seethes over the record’s implacable backing track: “When you fuck it up later, do I get my money back?”
LaVette seldom writes the songs she sings, but as her bracing performances on I’ve Got My Own Hell attest, she is no mere cover artist. The lines from “How Am I Different” cited above just as easily could apply to record companies LaVette has dealt with as to Mann’s faithless lover. So intensely does LaVette personalize the material on the album, in fact, that even those familiar with its ten songs doubtless will feel compelled to consult its liner notes to confirm a couple of the writing credits.
Indeed, neither LaVette’s swampy take on “Little Sparrow” nor her sobbing redemption of Bobbie Cryner’s “Just Say So” registered with one of this magazine’s longtime contributors when I played the album for him this summer. The writer in question was well acquainted in each case with the original.
LaVette, in other words, has plenty of her own to say, even when she’s using someone else’s words to say it. “You can’t stifle my dreams, my body, my mind, this voice,” she avers, by way of Fiona Apple, on the album’s imperious closing track, biting down on the final two words before delivering the payoff: “I’ve got my own hell to raise.”
It’s not surprising LaVette would gravitate toward material that untangles the knot of autonomy and self-esteem plumbed so evocatively in “God Bless The Child”. She’s spent more than four decades making riveting music, both on record and onstage, yet until the release of 2003’s exquisite soul-blues testament, A Woman Like Me, she languished in considerable obscurity. As if to underscore this persistent marginalization, LaVette has long been a darling of aficionados of northern soul, a de facto subgenre of ’60s soul music consisting largely of titles that flopped in the U.S. but later become the toast of the clubs in northern England. (Geno Washington, Jimmy James & the Vagabonds, and Candy & the Kisses are among the other artists, some obscure, others better known, who became northern soul favorites.)
A Woman Like Me earned LaVette a W.C. Handy Award for Best Blues Comeback Album in 2004. Yet even it — just her second official studio album in a four-decade career that included tours with Clyde McPhatter and James Brown and a run on Broadway with Cab Calloway — didn’t exactly afford her mainstream cultural exposure.