Venerable Singer Takes on Venerable Songs
Betty LaVette is one of the great singers of our age, and no stranger to interpreting others’ work either. Her version of Lucinda Williams’s “Joy”, from 2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, remains the definitive version of that song, and this from someone who thought the original couldn’t be bettered. If you’ve never heard it, look it up online, right now, and listen. We’ll wait.
Dolly Parton, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Sinead O’Connor—when LaVette casts her net, she casts it wide, and more often than not, she manages to transform the song into something utterly new—recognizable, but deeper, darker, and often more powerful. Her last record, a 6-song collection of soul standards like “Change Is Gonna Come” and “Ain’t No Sunshine”, was a logical extension of her 40+-year career.
Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook takes on somewhat different material: a set of classic rockers from the 1960s and ‘70s. Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Traffic, Pink Floyd, the Beatles (collectively and individually, except for John—go figure) and more. This is classic-rock radio fodder, and LaVette shows courage in taking on such venerable tunes and placing her own indelible stamp on the material.
For roughly half the tracks, her performances are revelatory. “The Word” is transformed from a bouncy Rubber Soul pop song to a from-the-gut plea. Ringo Star’s “It Don’t Come Easy” mines the blues for levels of resonance that the original never had, while Zeppelin’s “All My Love” trades Plant’s fey chirping for LaVette’s angsty howl, accompanied by a sexy piano undertone. “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad”, from Layla, brings in horns to point up the funk buried in the song’s DNA, while “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” lends emotional heft to an overly familiar song by the Animals.
Elsewhere, her reinventions are less successful, perhaps because the originals themselves are so perfect, or maybe because her go-to emotional state—eyeball-scratching angst—isn’t necessarily the perfect tone for “Wish You Were Here” or “Nights in White Satin”. Both these songs are wistful and contemplative, wearing their darkness and sense of loss gently (well, as gently as Roger Waters could ever manage), and LaVette misfires with her turn-it-up-to-11 emotional intensity. Moreover, her bewildering decision to re-order the verse and chorus of the Pink Floyd song, so that she begins with “How I wish you were here…” before any of the powerful verses that lead up to that punchline, is both mystifying and unsuccessful.
Other songs, like the Rolling Stones’ “Salt of the Earth” and Traffic’s “No Time to Live”, seem lightweight compared to other picks on the album, or even other songs by the bands themselves. (I’d have loved to hear her take on “Dear Mr. Fantasy”, for example, or “Wild Horses”.)
The record closes with a live version of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me”, recorded live. It is a fitting bit of bombast to end a record which might have benefited from a bit less of it. But hey, it’s Bettye. No one else sings like she does, as this record once again indisputably proves.