Bettye Lavette: Interpretations - The British Rock Songbook
Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook
Perennial also-ran Bettye Lavette, among the many very good 1960s Detroit soul singers not signed to Motownothers include Barbara Lewis, Deon Jackson and Edwin Starroffers a concept album of sorts. An interesting concept, too: R&B covers of classic British rock hits, from roughly the mid-1960s to the early 1970s (Led Zeppelin's "All My Love," from 1979, is an outlier in temporal terms).
There is some precedent for this: Donny Hathaway's "Yesterday," to Wilson Pickett's "Hey Jude," to Earth, Wind & Fire's "Got To Get You Into My Life, " or even Nina Simone's version of George Harrison's "Isn't It A Pity" (not so different from the reading given here by Lavette). And that's just the Beatles tunes that have been interpreted by R&B artists.
Lavette's British rock record in fact kicks off with a worthy contribution to the list of Beatles covers, with a refashioning of "The Word," an unlikely subject for the R&B treatment from the Fab Four's Rubber Soul (EMI, 1965). It's the grittiest R&B on the disc, and the most successful example of making us hear an extremely familiar song in a whole new way. On "The Word" and other cuts, Lavette's voice is expressive, at times uncannily like that of singer Tina Turner at her most wailing. But Lavette has, overall, a more aggressive, abrasive sound than Turner. Lavette does not attempt to hide the broken and worn qualities of her voice, instead relying centrally on them.
Interpretations is an imperfect but remarkably compelling record. It's imperfect for a couple of reasons. First, the band is exceedingly professional, but anonymous-sounding; a more fiery outfit would suit Lavette's approach to the material. A second issue is that Lavette sometimes fails to connect with the (admittedly odd) lyrics.
On some numbers, this is not a problem. Elton John's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" or, strangely, Led Zeppelin's "All My Love," have a kind of generic MOR quality that allows Lavette to make the songs her own relatively easily. Others are less successful matches. The Rolling Stones' "Salt of the Earth" sounded cheesily insincere when Mick Jagger sang it. Lavette's version is heartfelt and genuine, but it's not enough to redeem the song. Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," likewise, presents problems for Lavette's deliberate, emotional reading. It's a lovely melody, though. Indeed, instrumental versions are spared the tricky problem of negotiating the song's cumbersome lyric: Guillaume de Chassy's piano-trio version is particularly successful: it's on his Faraway So Close (Bee Jazz, 2008).
And when she does connect, Lavette brings forth new dimensions from the material. Nowhere is this more clear than "No Time To Live," a strange Steve Winwood song from Traffic's second album. The mood is one of weary resignation"my pebble on the beach is being washed away"apparently the account of a singer succumbing to life's travails. But that's not quite what the song is about. The barely 20 year old Winwood is complaining about the overwhelming demands of superstardom. "You see that lucky man?" the song says to us. "You have no idea how lonely he is." Lavette imbues the song with all the claustrophobic desperation suggested by the lyric, but this performance by a soulwoman struggling for decades for her big break, taking on the persona of a still-pimply faced British rocker vaulted into fame, lends the performance a profound irony.
The larger story behind the concept, of course, is that all of the musicians whose work is represented here were profoundly marked by their encounter with R&B, soul music and the blues. Where, for example, would guitarist Eric Claptonrepresented here by his Derek & the Dominoes song, "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad"be without B.B. King? Or Albert King? Or Freddie King? That so many of these numbers work so well in a more R&B-inflected environment is not entirely surprising.
Moreover, while it may seem at first that what this album is a wholly enjoyable appropriation of British rock songs by a veteran R&B performer, the record is in fact something else entirely: a tiny repayment of a vast musicological debt owed by the British rockers. This historical context only deepens the pathos of Lavette's performance on "No Time To Live."
Part of what makes the record so compelling is the songs that were not included, or could be included in a possible sequel. For example, Lavette includes songs from early in the solo careers of all the Beatles save John Lennon: it would be exciting to hear her take on "I Found Out," a blistering blues from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Apple, 1971). And why not Jimi Hendrix? His "1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)" would sound great sung by Lavette (seriously). OK, so Hendrix was not British, but he produced, arguably, better blues-based British pop-rock than any of his British contemporaries. But, then again, like Lavette, at root Hendrix is a great R&B artist.
Tracks: The Word; No Time to Live; Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood; All My Love; Isn't It a Pity; Wish You Were Here; It Don't Come Easy; Maybe I'm Amazed; Salt of the Earth; Nights In White Satin; Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad; Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me; Love Reign O'er Me.
Personnel: Bettye LaVette: vocals, arrangements; Jeff Kievit: trumpet; Mike Davis: trombone; Aaron Heick: alto sax; Andy Snitzer: tenor sax; Rob Mathes: keyboards, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, arrangements, background vocals; Michael Bearden: Hammond B-3, keyboards (13); Shane Fontayne: electric guitars; Jan Folkson: additional electric guitars; Zev Katz: electric bass, upright bass; Charley Drayton: drums, percussion; Kenny Aronoff: drums (13); Vaneese Thomas: background vocals; Tabitha Fair: background vocals; James "D-Train" Williams: background vocals.