Soul Survivor: The best of Bettye LaVette

Bettye LaVette’s is one of the truly gut-wrenching stories of being used, abused, overlooked, and underestimated by the music industry. She had an R&B radio hit when she was 17, then spent 40 years getting passed over time and time again. In her 50s, she began releasing a string of records that distilled a lifetime of frustration and disappointment, channeling her own song of lament almost entirely through interpretations of other people’s work. (By my count, the five albums I’ve listed below contain exactly one LaVette writing credit.) With these albums, she has finally commanded the admiration that’s long been her due. Her music of exquisite heartache now comes with an aura of triumph.

For my money, she is the greatest soul singer in the world. Whether this is because of or in spite of her long years in exile, I’m not totally sure. Certainly, personal suffering is not a prerequisite for singing the blues, nor is it something to be fetishized. And yet, listening to the work of her glory years, I am struck by one thing in particular: Bettye LaVette is someone who never lets any pain go to waste.

There are five of her albums that I treasure:

01. The Scene of the Crime (2007)
I remember being baffled by the announcement that Bettye was headed to Muscle Shoals to cut an album with the Drive-by Truckers, though I don’t exactly remember why; maybe in those days none of us quite realized how well the Truckers could handle a groove. The resulting album is a masterpiece, one that excels on a couple of levels. You can enjoy it as an old-fashioned jukebox record; a wonderfully dank, swampy take on blues, R&B, and country, absent any unnecessary frills. But it’s also a transfixing piece of autobiography, told almost entirely through cover songs: Songs about drinking, paying the bills, jealousy, and regret, but also a story arc about getting chewed up and spit out, left for dead, then somehow rising in glory. It would be corny to say that LaVette delivers these songs as if she wrote them; more accurately, she makes it sound like these songs were written about her. She actually did write “Before the Money Came,” the record’s triumphant climax… though by that point, the hard turn into memoir feels almost unnecessary. 

02. Worthy (2015)
Sometimes when I compliment my wife’s cooking, she responds by asking: “With these ingredients, how could you go wrong?” This is exactly how I feel about Worthy, where LaVette is produced by Joe Henry and backed by a all-star squad of studio players; she revitalizes a marginal Dylan tune and an underrated Stones, turns Henry’s classic “Stop” inside-out, and finds the gospel heart of Over the Rhine’s “Undamned.” There is no overarching concept here, and there doesn’t need to be: Everything about Worthy, from the performances through the album sequencing, displays an absolute mastery of craft.

03. Blackbirds (2020)
It’s incredible that it took so long for LaVette to make an album of songs popularized by Black women (with one Beatles tune to serve as the coda). The result is a stunning example of LaVette’s masterful transference of pain. She doles out song after song of romantic anguish… and then she gives us a spectral “Strange Fruit” for the ages, which will make you realize she’s been singing about a different kind of heartache all along.

04. I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005)
ANTI- Records’ decision to pair LaVette with producer Joe Henry (then riding a wave of acclaim for his work on Don’t Give Up on Me, a career-reviving album for another soul survivor, Solomon Burke) really proved to be the catalyst for her remarkable latter-day resurgence. Compared to some of her other albums, including the next one she made with Henry, the production is just a shade too genteel, despite a few songs that revel in sludgy low-end fonk. And yet, everything that makes LaVette great is in evidence here. I should probably just say that she sings a Lucinda Williams tune and a Dolly Parton number, and both sound great. What else could you possibly need to know?

05. Things Have Changed (2018)
Or: Bettye LaVette Sings Bob Dylan. The chance to hear our greatest interpreter sink her teeth into such a hallowed body of work may almost sound too good to be true, like a classic unstoppable force/immovable object situation, but make no mistake: Bettye devours these songs. Part of the reason it works so well is that the singer never sounds like she’s intimidated or unworthy; instead, she asserts her right to do with these songs what she will, treating them not as sacred writ but rather as vessels for her own self-expression. Though stacked with studio pros (including Keith Richards!), the sound is a little too slick, slinking and gliding when you wish it would rumble and rage. And yet the album remains an astonishing witness to the space LaVette can create for herself, even within such oft-trod material.

Don’t Ask Me For Indifference: New albums from The Weather Station, Celeste, Hayley Williams, etc.

Some quick takes on a few notable new releases.

01. Ignorance | The Weather Station
When the poet Adam Zagajewski invited us to “praise the mutilated world,” this may have been what he had in mind. The fifth album from The Weather Station offers tragic love songs for a planet in peril— like “Atlantic,” where the narrator is caught between rhapsodizing creation’s beauty and mourning its decline. There’s also “Robber,” which sounds like a twisted love song written to capitalism, where consumer culture itself is a relationship as abusive as it is inescapable. And “Loss” offers a lament unadorned by metaphor: Brokenness is brokenness and the end of the world is the end of the world, whatever other life lessons you try to extract from them. In other words, Tamara Lindeman has basically written this year’s soundtrack for Lent, and an anguished summary of the Fall: How brokenness and corruption have dysfunctioned our relationships with the planet and with each other. (As the prayer book says, Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.) She honors her grief by refusing to sugarcoat it, and she makes it palatable through dusky, late-night grooves with subtly dramatic arrangements. Supported by crisp drums, pristine piano, and the occasional moan of wind instruments, Ignorance boasts a mastery of tone and perfection of narrative momentum; and Lindeman sings her songs of grief as though they’re really anguished torch songs, which of course they are. I haven’t even mentioned “Heart,” where she’s unwilling to surrender love to apathy, no matter how much it pains her to keep caring. It’s an ache that anyone who’s ever loved will recognize all too well. 

02. Not Your Muse | Celeste
A lovelorn R&B record for the wee small hours of the morning. Young in years but old at heart, Celeste is obviously smitten with vintage styles, yet she never seems like she’s trying to sound retro, much less nostalgic; cliches though they may be, timeless and elegant feel more apropos. She sounds great on a clutch of glistening bangers, preferring coyness and intimacy over the raw power you’d get from, say, Adele. But what clinches it are the smoldering, threadbare torch songs that open the album (“Ideal Woman,” “Strange”), which show where her power really lies—vulnerable storytelling, grounded in the quiet embers of her voice.

03. FLOWERS for VASES/ descansos | Hayley Williams
The Paramore singer’s first solo album was the kind of sturdy, autobiographical pop record that seemed predestined to make a big splash; naturally, its rollout was swallowed by the dawning pandemic. You can hardly blame her for keeping the follow-up a little looser, more ragged and instinctive. Recorded during quarantine and performed completely alone, FLOWERS for VASES feels homespun and demo-ish, a set of melancholy acoustic guitar tunes buoyed by gurgling electronics. It’s a great showcase for her robust melodies and unguarded singing, and for lyrics that process divorce while cycling through grief and acceptance. Includes an album-opening line that many a country singer would kill for: “The first thing to go was the sound of his voice…”

04. Sound Ancestors | Madlib
The celebrated hip-hop producer releases an arresting, mostly wordless suite of beats, samples, and juxtapositions— a smorgasbord of sounds that reflects deep musicianship, insatiable curiosity, and a skill for paying close attention. There are some vintage R&B and soul samples that prove emotionally load-bearing, but I’m just as fixated on “Loose Goose,” where a disembodied Snoop Dogg speaks affirmations over what sounds like a symphony of bird calls, and “Riddim Chant,” a hypnotic odyssey of percussion.

05. Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! | Aaron Lee Tasjan
Initially I was put off by how precisely Tasjan replicates the glossy production style of Jeff Lynne (think Tom Petty, Traveling Wilburys). Why invest so much effort in what’s effectively cosplay? But then I found myself laughing out loud at “Feminine Walk,” his salute to rock and roll androgyny— a real hoot. And I’ve been singing the tune from “Up All Night” for days. So I started to wonder: Maybe historic reenactment is how this guy’s mastered his craft, in much the same way that tracing letters has taught my five-year-old son how to write freehand. And maybe Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! is something special: An homage that doubles as a showcase for its auteur’s tunefulness, whimsy, and humor.

06. Medicine at Midnight | Foo Fighters
Foo Fighters are one of the last big bands to remain so admirably, stubbornly, deludedly, quixotically committed to the idea of rock and roll; not even U2 are as set in their ways. It’s almost funny that their idea of shaking things up is to try their hand at disco, something The Rolling Stones did more than 40 years ago, but I’ll say this for Medicine at Midnight: Both rhythmically and melodically, this is about as hooky and engaging as the Foo Fighters have ever sounded, a party record from our most duty-bound crusaders. It’s just a shame their rock and roll conservatorship forces them to be so risk-averse; you can practically hear them straining to avoid developing a real point of view.

07. OK Human | Weezer
You can take away the guitars, you can strip out the power chords, you can gussy everything up in lush orchestral arrangements… but at the end of the day, for better or for worse, the songs of Rivers Cuomo are always going to sound like the songs of Rivers Cuomo. That means OK Human is consummately tuneful, unabashedly nerdy, and problematic any time it unfurls a proper noun. It’s not enough for Cuomo to make an album indebted to Serge Gainsbourg and Harry Nilsson; he has to reference them by name, making his intentions just a little too clear. And when he name-drops the Audible app, it doesn’t feel like writerly detail so much as crass product placement. What’s most impressive about the album, besides its inspirational title, is how Weezer can make an album utterly distinct in its character yet still of a piece with all their others. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Loss & Legacy: New albums by Steve Earle, Barry Gibb

In the latest installment of “Rooted & Restless,” I take a look at two new albums that both grapple with legacy: Steve Earle’s JT, which both mourns the loss of his son and celebrates the body of work he left behind; and Barry Gibb’s Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1, which recontextualizes classic songs from The Bee Gees. Both are worth hearing, especially JT. Though tragic in its circumstance, it’s one of the richer, more rewarding Steve Earle albums in recent memory.

Core Canon: 60 albums I’d hate to be without

Lists like this require more work than you’d think, which is why I don’t make them too often. But as new releases just start to trickle in, I thought I’d offer my hypothetical hall-of-fame ballot; my response to the age-old desert island question.

I am presuming a fairly spacious island, and lots of time on my hands. So why 60? Because 100 seems unwieldy somehow, yet keeping it to 50 required cuts I couldn’t bring myself to make. As is always the case with lists, I intend this as a snapshot in time: 60 albums that have been formative, that have brought pleasure, that have abided mystery and midwifed revelation. Ask me again in a month and I’m sure I’d come to some slightly different conclusions.

  1. Tiny Voices | Joe Henry
  2. “Love & Theft” | Bob Dylan
  3. The Birth of Soul | Ray Charles
  4. Birds of My Neighborhood | The Innocence Mission
  5. The Bright Mississippi | Allen Toussaint
  6. Mama’s Gun | Erykah Badu
  7. The Long Surrender | Over the Rhine
  8. The Weight of These Wings | Miranda Lambert
  9. Kind of Blue | Miles Davis
  10. Black Messiah | D’Angelo
  11. Civilians | Joe Henry
  12. Real Midnight | Birds of Chicago
  13. Good Dog Bad Dog | Over the Rhine
  14. A Love Supreme | John Coltrane
  15. Every Picture Tells a Story | Rod Stewart
  16. The Basement Tapes | Bob Dylan & The Band
  17. Sign o’ the Times | Prince
  18. So | Peter Gabriel
  19. The Low End Theory | A Tribe Called Quest
  20. Paul’s Boutique | Beastie Boys
  21. Court and Spark | Joni Mitchell
  22. Money Jungle | Duke Ellington
  23. In a Silent Way | Miles Davis
  24. Rain Dogs | Tom Waits
  25. Abattoir Blues & The Lyre of Orpheus | Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  26. Red | Taylor Swift
  27. The Gospel According to Water | Joe Henry
  28. The Scene of the Crime | Bettye LaVette
  29. Painted from Memory | Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach
  30. Parade | Prince & The Revolution
  31. Undun | The Roots
  32. Highway 61 Revisited | Bob Dylan
  33. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
  34. Legacy! Legacy! | Jamila Woods
  35. Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus | Charles Mingus
  36. Basie & Zoot | Count Basie and Zoot Sims
  37. Thelonious Monk Trio | Thelonious Monk
  38. Achtung Baby | U2
  39. All This Useless Beauty | Elvis Costello & The Attractions
  40. Time Out of Mind | Bob Dylan
  41. Purple Rain | Prince & The Revolution
  42. Hell on Heels | Pistol Annies
  43. Sings the Blues | Nina Simone
  44. Otis Blue | Otis Redding
  45. How I Got Over | The Roots
  46. A Boot and a Shoe | Sam Phillips
  47. Time (The Revelator) | Gillian Welch
  48. John Wesley Harding | Bob Dylan
  49. Trust | Elvis Costello & The Attractions
  50. Voodoo | D’Angelo
  51. Back to Back | Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges
  52. Folklore | Taylor Swift
  53. RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
  54. Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
  55. Hounds of Love | Kate Bush
  56. King’s Record Shop | Rosanne Cash
  57. Lifes Rich Pageant | R.E.M.
  58. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark | Drive-by Truckers
  59. there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens with Franceso Turrisi
  60. Diatom Ribbons | Kris Davis