[26 September 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Bettye LaVette memorably sang about Muscle Shoals on I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005). Her rendition of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” told the story of the many ill-fated recording opportunities that met the singer throughout her 40+ year career: “I went to Muscle Shoals / looking for my joy / I thought maybe in the Shoals / I could find some joy.” It’s sweet justice that the recording of The Scene of the Crime brought LaVette back to Muscle Shoals—the proverbial scene of the crime—35 years after Atlantic Records mysteriously shelved Child of the Seventies, a 1972 project that was slated to be LaVette’s first full-length album. (Instead, the singer entered a deep depression and spent the next three decades cultivating a cult following; the album finally saw the light of day in the US in 2005.) On her Anti- Records follow-up, LaVette is matched with Drive-By Truckers’ producers Patterson Hood and David Barbe for a simmering and unsympathetic set of incendiary songs; a set that takes stock of the challenges LaVette has overcome in an industry which has finally caught up with her.
The Scene of the Crime is ten tracks of stories, each one sounding torn from the shredded pages of LaVette’s own life. She invests all of herself in the material, but, like many song stylists, LaVette is somewhat at the mercy of her producers, people who know what to “do” with her commanding instrument. Enlisted by Anti- president Andy Kaulkin, Hood and Barbe try and capture what Joe Henry did so well on I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise: keep the instrumentation stripped and soulful, and let LaVette’s voice do the talking. The singer even lands herself a production credit on the album, demonstrating her intuition behind the console as well as the microphone. While not as complete a revelatory experience as its predecessor, The Scene of the Crime has moments of profundity that are unique to LaVette’s particular method of owning a song.
“Take Me Like I Am”, (the album’s opener), “You Don’t Know Me at All”, “Last Time”, and “Before the Money Came” are strutting rockers, and LaVette’s proud-as-a-peacock performance reflects the mettle of one who’s not only survived a few fires, but also lit a few flames herself. Her trials have been plentiful enough that subtitling the latter tune “The Battle of Bettye LaVette” is not just a whimsical touch, it’s a hard-earned right. The story illustrates the road LaVette traveled before she earned widespread critical acclaim and thousands of fans:
I was singing R&B back in ‘62
Before you were born and your mama too
I knew David Ruffin when he was hopeless
Sleeping on my floor before he crossed-over
All my friends on the Grammy shows
I was stuck in Detroit trying to open doors
Record deals kept falling apart
One with Atlantic nearly broke my heart
LaVette imbues Frankie Miller’s “Jealously” with ferocity and fire. The track prowls underneath her crackling voice as she cautions, “If you want him to stay / Let him breathe”. She does wonders for the word jealously, much like she did for joy on the last album, where it ceases to be merely a word. Instead, “jealously” is a vehement warning.
Other tunes characterize LaVette as a bruised soul whose defiant spirit provides some of the most mesmerizing phrasing on the album. On Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces”, LaVette’s voice expresses a range of emotions in just a few notes on the line, “The fall to the bottom / It can tear you all apart.” She unwinds every possible strand of despair on “fall”, singing the word as “faw-aw-ah-all.” The sweet lament of John Neff’s pedal steel offers a contrast to the leathery texture of LaVette’s voice. “Talking Old Soldiers” by Elton John and Bernie Taupin is positively haunting. Spooner Oldham’s piano quietly guides the sung-spoken melody. With only a bass and pedal steel in the mix, LaVette’s performance is nothing short of brilliant; the following passage reveals a series of chilling moments:
I know what they’re saying, son
‘There goes that old crazy broad again’
Well I may be mad, in fact
But I’ve seen enough to make a young man
Blow out his brains
The Scene of the Crime is music without a shelf life. Gut-wrenching performances never go out of style. That said, life seems to be getting better for LaVette since her last album, and it would be interesting to hear her take a break from the southern-fried blues rock that’s marked her past two albums before it becomes cliché. Her gift for interpretation is far too unique to limit to heartache and regret ... but Bettye LaVette is going to sing what she damn well pleases. For the time being, The Scene of the Crime stands as another illustrious chapter in the continuing story of Ms. Bettye LaVette.