Betty Wright and The Roots: “Betty Wright: The Movie”

Betty Wright begins her new album with a paean to “Old Songs,” which she also identifies as “strong songs.” The track is a tribute to the great soul tracks of yesteryear—not only does she give props to Stevie, but also to vinyl records and even 8-tracks—but it’s also an admonishment to write and record new songs, strong songs, songs that might prove timeless and enduring as the ones that paved the way. And Wright is unafraid to voice her support of what the kids are doing; she says that, over time, the beats have gotten better, but nobody writes about meaningful subject matter any more. It’s an argument that strikes close to the heart of who she is as a recording artist. Wright has been recording music since the late 1960’s. Now here she is, cutting a brand new LP of original material with The Roots as her backing band and the likes of Snoop Dog and Lil’ Wayne stopping by for assists.

Betty Wright: The Movie has a lot of strong songs on it, and also a lot of great performances. She is a great soul singer by any standard, and if the years have added some new tics and wrinkles to her voice, it’s only made it stronger. She can, and does, belt it out with joyful zeal and depth of feeling. She is unafraid to play the role of soul’s elder stateswoman, and it’s a role she plays well; she and The Roots create a sound that’s lushly retro, but, as they did with their supporting work for Booker T. Jones earlier this year, Philly’s finest enliven this music with their tight performances and crisp beats. And just to make sure you know she’s not a curmudgeon, Wright’s ode to “Old Songs” doesn’t just include namedrops of Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle, but also Prince and—in a sort of extended shoutout—Erykah Badu.

But try as she might to convince that she is stodgy, stodgy Ms. Wright can be. She is unafraid to take a strong moral stance, and I love her for that; this is, indeed, strongly moral music, Wright’s takes on relationships informed by her well-defined opinions of what constitutes a real man, and a real woman. (In both cases, fidelity, sensuality, and romance seem to be key.) It gives the album a center, and if it’s almost startlingly traditional in its values, it’s no less truthful because of it.

But my own preference is for songs that reveal, not advise, and some of these songs feel like relationship tips from mom. “In the Middle of the Game” recommends that a woman make her man some dinner—and if she can’t cook, to order takeout. It sounds like a decent advice column, not a particularly great song; that said, it still sounds aces thanks to The Roots’ awesome disco groove. “Look Around (Be a Man)” is also a little didactic when it bids a man to let the narrator know if he plans on cheating on her, though I like how Wright finishes the thought—that if she knows he’s going to sleep around, at least she can do some “fishin’” and “window wishin’” of her own, guilt-free.

But none of those songs are as on-the-nose and cumbersome as the cautionary tale of “Hollywould”—so spelled because it’s about a girl named Holly who would do anything, sexually, as she walks the streets at night smoking dope and pimping herself for quick cash. It seems her problems began when her mama didn’t teach her to be a lady, and when her dad sexually abused her; I have no problem with the causal relationship evidenced here, but am not wild a song that’s explanatory enough to actually use the words “sexual abuse” in describing a character’s motivations. Then again: The Roots lay down a twinkling piano/pounding drum track that’s very modern hip-hop, and it works splendidly.

Indeed, I am not at all opposed to Wright’s more modern leanings here. The old soul sounds suit her well, but then, after her game acknowledgement that the beats have only gotten better in soul music, it makes sense that she would enlist Snoop Dog to drop a good verse in one song, then have Lil’ Wayne do an even better one in “Grapes on a Vine”—a song that’s really more rock than anything else, though thankfully it’s rocking in a funky sense, not a Rebirth sense.

But the more retro brand of soul is still Wright’s wheelhouse, and there are some knockout songs here. This is soul music in the purest sense—music that actually seems like it’s good for the soul. The vibe is warm and relaxed, and the grooves are so organic that they’re allowed to stretch on for five or six minutes on most songs. ?uestlove, in particular, provides the kind of spare, crisp beats one might expect from him, and his work is foundational enough to what makes this album successful that it’s a little jarring when he’s absent on three songs.

So: “Tonight Again” is a song that Wright introduces with a caution to put the kids to bed, and sure enough, it’s a lovemaking jam that’s just exquisite in its sensuality and romance. And it’s not even the best thing here. “Whisper in the Wind” is a brilliant jam on the Philly tip, with Joss Stone on guest vocals and a great jilted love’s lyric that’s beautiful and sad. I love the closer, “You and Me, LeRoy,” a Marvin Gaye-ish tune that acknowledges external troubles but refuses to acknowledge even a stack of unpayable bills as reason for infidelity or diminished romance; when Wright says those bills have got “nothing to do with you and me,” she makes you believe her. And on top of all that, “Baby Come Back” is a glorious burst of pure Isaac Hayes/Burt Bacharach emotion, a beautifully pleading song that stands as the album’s high point.

This is good, warm, soulful music—meat and potatoes soul, I’m tempted to call it, which is by no means a sleight but rather an affirmation of this music’s goodness: The Roots lock into a groove, Wright sings her heart out, and the music just feels good. This is where passion meets craft, and nothing flashy is needed; if that passion gets the better of Wright here and there, well, it doesn’t keep the songs from sounding stellar. All things considered, the record is aces. It’s loaded with new songs—strong songs.

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  1. The Roots: “undun” « The Hurst Review - December 4, 2011

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