Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2005 02:19 pm
Sandpaper dipped in sorghum
Bettye LaVette back with a masterpiece
As everyone from Homer to Oprah can attest, people love comeback stories, the heartwarming testimonials of odds-beaters and fate-cheaters, the inspirational tales of prodigal sons and hard-luck daughters. To call I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise a comeback album might make for a better story, but it wouldn’t be accurate. Bettye LaVette, the 59-year-old singer responsible for this masterpiece, never went away; we just stopped paying attention to her. In 2004, when her previous full-length won a prestigious blues award, she relayed the news on her Web site thusly: “And of course, you must also know that after all these years, I have won a W.C. Handy Award. Yep. Won for Best Comeback Album of the Year. But I know it is strictly due to you, my fans, that I have been able to hold on until THEY ‘came back’ and acknowledged me.” LaVette’s tone — sardonic, stubborn, self-assured — is perfectly consistent with her vocal style and, one suspects, her character. Born in Muskegon, Mich., and reared in Detroit, LaVette (née Betty Haskin) came of age just as the Motor City’s music scene was about to explode nationally. At 16, she scored a Top 10 hit on the R&B charts with “My Man — He’s a Loving Man.” Although she continued to perform and record over the next four decades, she never tasted that much success again. Whether her commercial misfortune was a result of the idiocy and corruption of the industry or of what LaVette calls her own “buzzard luck” is impossible to say. Whatever the case, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, a collection of 10 tracks written by an eclectic assortment of female songwriters, is proof that adversity just makes some talents burn brighter. Sympathetically produced by LA singer/songwriter Joe Henry, who also worked with Solomon Burke on the critically acclaimed 2002 release Don’t Give Up on Me, LaVette’s new CD is the quintessence of soul — an achievement all the more remarkable for the fact that none of the songs, strictly speaking, began as a soul song. The opening cut, an a cappella rendition of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” transforms the dreamy Irish air into a gritty Southern spiritual; the closing track, a cover of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream,” strips away the original’s chamber-pop eccentricities to expose its bluesy guts. Between these stellar bookends, LaVette subjects equally unlikely songs to her interpretive alchemy: There’s “Joy,” written by alt-country priestess Lucinda Williams; “Down to Zero,” by British folk iconoclast Joan Armatrading; “How Am I Different,” co-written by pop classicist Aimee Mann ; and “The High Road,” by Leonard Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson, the only song on the disc written expressly for LaVette. Picking out highlights from an album so consistently brilliant is a fool’s endeavor, but under duress I’d probably choose the obscure country weeper “Just Say So,” a minimalist cri de coeur worthy of Otis Redding; and Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow,” a feminist cautionary tale that’s funky, sinister, and improbably sexy. Due credit must be given to the backing musicians (including former Prince sidekick Lisa Coleman on keyboards and Eric Clapton accomplice Doyle Bramhall II on electric guitar), who follow LaVette’s unconventional phrasing with discretion and verve, whether it’s on a down-and-dirty roadhouse shuffle or a delicate, arpeggio-laced ballad. The guitars swing and sting; the upright bass burbles and burns; the organs boomerang from juke joint to church. The real wonder, though, is LaVette’s hardship-honed voice, a raspy alto that’s like sandpaper dipped in sorghum. Does she extract the soul from these songs or impose it? Who knows? Whatever she’s doing, it’s magic.