Music

Bettye LaVette: Worthy

More than 50 years into her career, Bettye LaVette still has a voice for the ages.


Bettye LaVette

Worthy

Label: Cherry Red
US Release Date: 2015-01-27
UK Release Date: 2015-01-26
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

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

rating-image