[7 December 2011]
Betty Wright begins her latest album, Betty Wright: The Movie, with a song titled “Old Songs”. It’s built around a mean groove – funky bass, smooth guitars – and it contains a blatant plea to the listener: “Old songs / old songs / old records / and old memories / 8 tracks / takin’ it back / to the old songs.” After making this naked statement about her own relevance and authenticity to the audience, you would expect Ms. Wright to pump out a set of jams along the lines of her late ‘60s, early ‘70s output that features tight little vessels of soul and funk. Instead, Betty Wright does an odd thing: she sings “When you 35 or 40 / and you’re chilling with your shorty.” This is never a sentence she would’ve uttered in 1972. That’s not inherently a bad thing – I’m all for changing with the times and staying abreast of the current lingo – but it undermines the whole premise of Wright’s song almost as soon as she establishes it. This is just the opening song on the album, but it illustrates all the troubles Wright has throughout Betty Wright: The Movie. Despite her status as a true soul survivor—and a woman who wrote a damn good hit in 1972—she makes too much of an effort to be “modern,” and moves too far from the stuff she does well.
To update her sound, Wright hooks up with several rappers. She chooses The Roots as her backing band, a cagey move which attempts to straddle the line between new cred and old, since The Roots (drummer ?uestlove in particular) have many connections to soul-oriented groups – for example, ?uestlove played drums on Al Green’s last album – while also maintaining a reputation as a hard-hitting rap group. The Roots do an admirable job instrumentally. The grooves are pristine, the guitar especially gets a lot more play than it has on recent Roots records, and the rhythm section is formidable. However, the inclusion of guest verses from rappers doesn’t work out as well. The addition of rappers is not in itself bad—the combination of soulful singing and fearsome rapping has led to countless great songs. But for Wright, it feels forced. “Real Woman”, the second song on the album, begins wonderfully: wah-wah backing guitar and a precise lead that sounds a bit like the riff James Brown made into “Papa Don’t Take No Mess”. Snoop Dog pops in near the end – he appeared on Mayer Hawthorne’s new album as well – and his verse is fine, but it’s unnecessary, an afterthought. “Grapes On A Vine” begins with gentle guitar picking that works great as the backdrop to Wright’s vocals and melancholy backing “oohs.” But then Wright mashes this gorgeous opening with fuzz riffage. Lil’ Wayne shows up to rap over extended power guitar in complete disregard of the tender, reverential opening. The whole thing begins to sound foolish.
On Betty Wright: The Movie, Wright abandons one of the keys to the sweetness of her old material: brevity. Betty Wright’s biggest hit, “Clean Up Woman”, is a beautifully constructed piece of R&B that clocks in at two minutes and fifty seconds. Wright built “Clean Up Woman” with the exactness of effortless perfection: it starts with a killer guitar riff that is soon joined by an easy supporting bass, then by reassuring horns, and finally by tight drumming. As soon as it starts it’s gone, but that relentless groove lingers. In contrast, Betty Wright: The Movie is well over an hour, with the average song around five minutes long. James Brown could run a riff out for 15 minutes without a second thought and at minute 15 he could still be as scintillating as he was at minute one. But for Brown, the riff was the story. His tense, lean, brutal repetition was the art—he never let you get comfortable. Wright uses her grooves as vehicles for her story. She lets you settle in, but neither her riffs nor her stories hold water by the five minute mark. “Real Woman” is a good idea that she drives farther than she should. In contrast, the shorter “So Long, So Wrong” does not overstay its welcome.
On other parts of Betty Wright: The Movie, Wright seems to be checking boxes labeled “sexy” or “socially conscious.” On “Tonight Again”, she declares she’s singing “grown folks music,” and then launches into a terrible attempt at a song of seduction. “Hollywould” takes a darker tone, with some menacing synths underlying a story about a single mother. She also looks at social ills in album ender “Go!”, over nine minutes long, which comments on the abuse of women. Social commentary in music is of course honorable, and there is a strong and excellent tradition of political and social commentary in soul and R&B. I don’t doubt her commitment, but this was never Ms. Wright’s strong suit in the ‘60s, and it isn’t now either.
Betty Wright knows great soul, and there are several excellent passages on Betty Wright: The Movie. But she shouldn’t feel the need to rebuild herself completely separate from her old persona. She can look back, take what was good and leave what wasn’t without warping her music in unnatural ways. She attempts to inject a modern feel in her work, but she would be better off following the path of someone like Sharon Jones, who unabashedly tries to recreate the excellence of Wright’s old sound. Having been around in the old days should be a badge of honor, rather than a reputation from which to run away.