There are certain female voices within the fabric of contemporary American soul music that ought to be appreciated maybe just a little bit more than they are. You know, the ones that aren’t backed with a name like Aretha Franklin. Or the ones that Jeff Tweedy didn’t offer to resurrect with a series of great collaborative records. Or the ones not prominently featured on an Oscar-winning documentary.
They are the ones that survived. The ones that managed to keep their legacy in tact, the ones that never fell victim to a constantly changing and unfairly fickle popular culture. These are the voices that can still send goosebumps down your back and they can still make your head turn whenever you hear them echo in the distance. Age and life didn’t steal a thing from the very intangibles that made these voices so imperative; if anything, they’ve only grown more rich through the years.
Bettye LaVette has one of those voices. Born in 1946, she earned her first top 10 R&B hit, “My Man, He’s a Lovin’ Man”, when she was only 16 years old. With more than 50 years in the music industry behind her, she’s accrued one hell of a resume along the way, which has featured, among other things, one of 2005’s best albums, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. On it, she somehow made Fiona Apple feel groovy with her take on “Sleep to Dream” all the while taking Sinéad O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” and presenting it with even more haunting authority than the song’s author could ever muster up.
The Detroit singer sticks to that formula on her latest and excellent set, Worthy. Calling up songs written by everyone from Bob Dylan to Linford Detweiler, LaVette sounds as assured as ever, that scratchy croon tap-dancing on top of light soul grooves as good as it always has. Don’t call it a comeback, of course; this woman has been sounding this mesmerizing since JFK was in office.
That’s why some of Worthy‘s best moments come from artists that have been around nearly as long as she has. Dylan’s “Unbelievable” receives a smokey-cool touch up, fitting right in with the kind of stuff that was written to be played at jazz clubs in the 1960s. Slinking through each verse with earned sexiness, it’s the perfect way to begin the record, if only because of how ironic it feels to hear LaVette say something like “It’s unbelievable how you could get so rich so quick.” For an artist who has sometimes struggled to get the respect and notoriety she deserves, it’s an utterance that takes on new meaning some 25 years after Dylan first released it.
Better yet is the way the singer rearranges the 1967 Rolling Stones cut “Complicated” into a sultry sing-along that’s filled with as much low-end as it is weathered sass. One listen to how well the tom-tom pattern plays underneath LaVette’s voice and it might be the only time in history that another vocalist has owned one of Mick Jagger’s songs more than he once did. Like the song says, no, she doesn’t give a damn.
Such is how a lot of Worthy plays out: These performances aren’t tributes anymore than they are grand theft. Why? Because most of the stuff here features songs that work better for the soulster than they did their originators. The Beatles’ “Wait” is hardly recognizable, the upbeat Britpop structure replaced with little more than a haunting, bluesy acoustic guitar and the singer’s soul-torn voice. There’s simply no way John or Paul could have imagined their song taking on such a painstakingly authentic identity when stripped down to a broken vocal and sparse string-picking. It’s so crushing, one listen will make it stick with you for days.
Elsewhere, LaVette’s version of Chris Youlden’s “When I Was a Young Boy” (repurposed as “When I Was a Young Girl”) leans heavily on its groovy bass line as the singer intones, “If I knew then what I know now / Mistakes I wouldn’t have made / But you can’t get a sneak preview / Of what you’re gonna go through” with exactly as much poignancy as you might hope someone who is going to turn 70 in a year would provide. “Undamned” then goes on remind everyone of what makes LaVette such an undervalued vocalist, the soulful breaks in her voice being the things great singers are born with. And with little more than a piano behind her, Detweiler’s agonizing ballad is made epic with the help of some drum rolls and full-sounding cymbal runs. It’s the perfect setting for a voice as gritty as LaVette’s.
Which, at the end of the day, is ultimately why Worthy succeeds: Bettye LaVette knows her strengths. She knows what makes that voice of hers so timeless, and she knows how to make songs sound like they are her own, even if she had no part in writing them. If these 11 tracks were designed to remind the world of a criminally forgotten musical treasure, they succeeded and then some.
“It was so hard for me to feel that I was worthy,” she sings on the album’s smartly placed closing title track. Hopefully now, and especially after a record as good as this, she knows better.