Bettye LaVette: “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook”

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: No, Bettye LaVette’s Interpretations isn’t an entirely natural fit for her– nor is it an entirely satisfying album, not be a long shot– but it isn’t for the reasons you’d expect.

Start with the album titles. LaVette– an unsung soul veteran who had a minor hit or two in the sixties, then disappeared from the radar for decades– made a shocking late-career comeback in 2005, with the able help of Joe Henry and an album called I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, followed two years later with a knockout, modern soul masterpiece called The Scene of the Crime, this time aided by the Drive-by Truckers. Both albums were broiling with grit and soul– but of course they were: As their titles indicated, they were a fiery statement of intent and a sassy retelling of the singer’s own story, respectively. Never mind that the first was an all-covers affair, and that the second featured only one LaVette writing credit; she’s always been a soul singer in the classic tradition of song interpretation, bending songs at will to tell her own story.

Yes, interpretation— the very thing that her latest record claims to be right from the get-go. So don’t be alarmed by the rest of the title; that LaVette pulls these songs from the likes of the Beatles and Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Who, is, at this point, no major worry; anyone who heard the way she injected Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” with raw blues vigor or transformed Elton John’s “Talking Old Soldiers” into a soul-rattling stare into mortality’s eye, knows that she can do basically anything she wants, with whatever material she wants. So yes– this is an album of British rock standards, but they’re performed as only Bettye LaVette can perform them. Sometimes, that means recasting them in her own musical vocabulary– like turning “The Word” into sassy, brassy funk– and sometimes, it means drawing from these classic rockers the heart and soul of her own story; witness how she turns “All My Love” into a sweet, almost maternal declaration of fidelity, or how she transforms “Salt of the Earth” into a streetwise take on working class blues.

The concept, then, is hardly beyond LaVette’s considerable grasp; so why does the album sound like it lacks even half the muscle of The Scene of the Crime, or the purposefulness of My Own Hell? It isn’t quite that she doesn’t have the mighty roadhouse wallop of the Drive-by Truckers, or the soulful precision of Henry’s session players, to back her, but that isn’t far from the mark. The real trouble with the album is illuminated by its final cut, a live take on The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” taken from her show-stopping performance at the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s not a bad song by any means– actually, it’s one of the best things here– but in it lies the seed of calculation that keeps Interpretations from ever quite leaving the ground; it was this performance that served as the impetus for making this recording, and for LaVette choosing to work with producers Rob Mathes and Michael Stevens– the duo who produced the Kennedy Center event.

To say that they’re no Joe Henry or Patterson Hood is both to state the obvious and to be perhaps a bit unfair, for the problem isn’t that they lack talent; the problem is that they produce this album in much the same way they may have approached producing a star-studded, televised performance– namely, with a lot of gloss, the one thing LaVette’s music could do without. And so the performances here, while fine on LaVette’s end, are riddled with the kinds of streamlined, middle-of-the-road cliches that make it sound like a soul/adult-contemporary hybrid from the 1980s, complete with schmaltzy canned strings and horns and backing vocals that cross the line from tasteful adornment into out-and-out overproduction.

What this means is that there’s more than a little tension on this album, and not in a good way, as LaVette sings her ass off to make these songs her own even as she’s trapped in an environment that’s doggedly faceless and impersonal. That the album is never anything less than pleasant is solely a reflection on the singer’s own mighty superpowers– how could the sound of LaVette tackling “Maybe I’m Amazed” possibly be anything less than mesmerizing?– but Interpretations nevertheless remains an odditiy: A rather weak Bettye LaVette album that somehow does nothing to diminish the powers of the artist herself.

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