Bettye LaVette: Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook

Photo (partial) by Carol Friedman

It doesn't always work, but when it does, look out.

Bettye LaVette

Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook

Label: Anti-
US Release Date: 2010-05-25
UK Release Date: 2010-05-24

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.