BY MICHAEL TOLAND
The remarkable journey of soul singer Bettye LaVette has enough twists, turns, heartbreak and triumph to make a biopic far more fascinating than those made for bigger names. Her artistic path, too, has been an interesting one. After years of trying to make it in the world of R&B, she turned to producer Joe Henry and iconoclastic label Anti- to walk a new road, one in which songs taken from the worlds of rock, country and folk were filtered through her tonally limited but emotionally expressive voice and recast as future blues, soul and jazz classics. It’s a path she’s followed ever since, through five magnificent LPs that recast Americana in her image.
LaVette may have severed her relationship with Anti-, but she’s reconnected with Henry, producing her for the first time since 2004’s career-bump I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. Worthy doesn’t bother with the overarching concepts of prior LPs – instead she and Henry simply gather a group of good songs and soak them in molten LaVette. Fronting a small ensemble of players that includes guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and Henry stalwarts Jay Bellerose and Patrick Warren, the Detroit native applies her weathered croon to a variety of tunesmiths. The Rolling Stones’ “Complicated” becomes a roiling choogle, while the Beatles’ “Wait” transforms into a stark, acoustic ballad. She recasts Mickey Newbury’s “Bless Us All” as a smoky torch song, and her producer’s “Stop” as a slinky, sexy strut.
LaVette also shines a spotlight on lesser-known names, singing Randall Bramblett’s “Where a Life Goes” with quiet dignity, growling the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Just Between You and Me and the Wall, You’re a Fool” into a blues ballad and giving Over the Rhine’s lovely “Undamned” an impossibly soulful reading. She also gives an unknown her due with the horn-kissed R&B of “Step Away,” written by up-and-comer Christine Santelli.
The title track comes from the catalog of Mary Gauthier (with assistance from top Nashville tunesmith Beth Nielsen Chapman), and is another exercise in the kind of dignified soul that comes only from living a full life. It’s as much a metaphor for LaVette’s journey as it is a smart song choice, redolent with wise choices, stark realities and no regrets. This record isn’t just Worthy – it’s essential.
DOWNLOAD: “Unbelievable,” “Undamned,” “Stop”