Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On Bettye LaVette's New Album, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook

Posted By on Tue, May 25, 2010 at 4:50 PM

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After stints in and out of the spotlight over the course of 40-some-odd years, soul-singer Bettye LaVette signed a deal in 2005 to release an album with the ANTI Records, a label that's done as much to advance the careers of younger artists (The Weakerthans, Dr. Dog) as it has expose older artists (Tom Waits, Marianne Faithful) to a younger audience. Her first album for the label was I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, a collection of covers of songs by prominent women—Lucinda Williams, Sinead O'Connor, Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple, etc. Her second, The Scene of the Crime, was a collaboration with the Drive-By Truckers that had her tackling country songs. Both albums worked extremely well. The command she has of her voice is something to behold, and the arrangements were impeccable—neither careless nor overwrought. She's back now with Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, and her run of excellent work appears to have ended.

Something about the format—"Here's this song from this one genre, now do the thing that you always do to songs to make them sound like your own"—has grown old, and not only for us, but for her too, it seems. The song choices, from "Wish You Were Here" and "Nights in White Satin" to "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" and "Maybe I'm Amazed," are uninspired and frankly just not very interesting. In a way, it would have been like the Drive By Truckers' Patersoon Hood only delving far enough into country music to find her a bunch of Garth Brooks songs. Her voice still sounds good, of course, but the really affecting moments are far less frequent this time around: The live version of Pete Townshend's "Love Reign O'er Me," included here as a bonus track, is crushing, and an album full of tracks as strong as her take on The Stones' "Salt of the Earth" would have been stellar and, frankly, exactly what I was expecting. Instead, we get a bunch of relatively pedestrian covers of a bunch of songs so commonplace it's hard to imagine everyone going out of your way to hear them. Neither the originals, nor Ms. Lavette's versions.

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