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Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed

Doug Collette By

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Bettye LaVette's Things Have Changed isn't merely a homage to Bob Dylan, it is also a remarkable combination of invention and polish, as arresting in production, arrangement and playing as in the novel choice of songs. The venerable r&b/soul vocalist collaborates with an esteemed roster of musicians, overseen by producer/drummer Steve Jordan (Keith Richards, Boz Scaggs), all of whom sound as inspired by each other as by the range of the Nobel Laureate's compositions, spanning over forty years. The remarkable chemistry between the musicians, elevated by the participants' attraction to the material, renders the project compelling on a number of fronts. Not only will charged renditions of material such as "Ain't Talkin'" further pique listeners' curiosity about the meaning of songs' lyrics, there are just enough emotionally forthright moments to balance such abstract poetry. For example, most appropriate to the tune, Lavette allows herself to sound bewildered by the esoteric imagery of the song from Modern Times (Columbia, 2006), while the eerie strings above and behind her only accentuate the mood.

Even a devoted Dylan fan can't be so overcome with interpretation at the expense of the musicianship throughout this tenth album of LaVette's, commandeered by Jordan and, to a slightly lesser extent, his peer as a multi-instrumentalist and studio professional Larry Campbell (for seven years a band member of Bob's and, later on, the supervisor of The Barn in Woodstock owned by The Band's drummer, the late Levon Helm). The presence of these two enhances the practical value of maintaining a core band for the purposes of this LP. And that stability supplies a bedrock of uniformity for the album, a virtue further complemented through the polish and clarity of sound preserved by engineer Dave O'Donnell's recording and, in turn, Greg Calbi's mastering; theirs is a technical expertise that, for example, accentuates Trombone Shorty's cameo on "What Was It You Wanted." turning his appearance into more than just an additional marketing angle, making it another forthright means of pacing the album's track sequence within which his horn adds fresh texture.

As evidenced by the title assignment of a latter-day gem of a Dylan composition, LaVette's choice of songs is as brave as the arrangements are involved, the outcome being as much revelation about, as tribute to, one of the greatest composers of modern times. The singer clearly sought out songs that carry personal meaning for her, while the producing and playing team forges arrangements that not only mirror that significance to her, but also exhibit an openness to a variety of styles similar to that which the songwriter himself has applied to his compositions over the years.

So, the selection of tunes included here—only two of which, "It Ain't Me Babe" and "The Times They Are A-Changin,'" are bonafide classics—exemplifies Lavette's desire to sing only those songs that carry genuine meaning for her, She and her esteemed collaborators reveal new meaning in those numbers that, for more than a few listeners, might be familiar to a fault. "It Ain't Me Babe," too often and easily dismissed as a declarative kiss-off, sounds more than a little world-weary and resigned as Lavette sings it here, while "The Times They Are A-Changin,'" once a topical anthem, takes on a palpable irony because of the skeptical tone of her voice.

Elsewhere, the products of this restrained, discerning approach create moments worth savoring for more than just her delivery of the lyrics. For instance, the insistent beat behind "Seeing The Real You At Last" bolsters the declarative tone of the vocal, while the more intimate take afforded "Mama You Been On My Mind," comprised of acoustic piano and guitar, turns the tune into a parental devotional, pure and simple. And, indicative of the complementary union of talents permeating Things Have Changed, this mournful take on "Going Going Gone" stands as its romantic corollary; the singer alters her phrasing dramatically between the verses and chorus to play up the contradiction between simplistic truism and real life complications, a revelation rendered all the more clear by the glow of Leon Pendarvis' electric piano.

The enhanced sound of this production aids in illuminating not-so-readily discernible layers of emotion in these songs. In the case of "Don't Fall Apart From Me Tonight," it's a precarious balance of need and confusion, while the knotty instrumental interplay within "Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)" suggests there's a daunting complexity behind the implicit platitude in the song's title. And this jaunty, dance-able take on "Political World," is rooted in the chemistry of the rhythm section partners, Jordan as drummer and bassist Pino Palladino, even as the cut also carries an ominous air, thanks in part to Keith Richards' guitar solo.

Instead of, or perhaps in addition to, the slightly-overwritten and borderline-overwrought essays by the artist and executive producer, Carol Friedman, the lyrics to these dozen songs might've been printed in the CD booklet, not so much because LaVette doesn't elucidate them clearly—even when quiet she is emphatic in her enunciation—but because it would offer insight into the evolution of Dylan's command of language over the years, like his gift for melody, an estimable gift at the heart of this project.

There have been some listenable (and occasionally brilliant) recorded collections of Bob Dylan songs in recent months, most notably Willie Nile's Positively Bob (Virtual Label Group, 2017) and Joan Osborne's Songs of... (Womanly Hips, 2017), but neither of those artists sustains such a high level of courage and complexity as Bettye LaVette and company do. If Things Have Changed suffers from anything at all, it's an embarrassment of riches.

Track Listing: Things Have Changed; It Ain't Me Babe; Political World; Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight; Seeing the Real You at Last; Mama, You Been on My Mind; Ain't Talkin'; The Times They Are A-Changin'; What Was It You Wanted 4:42; Emotionally Yours; Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others); Going, Going, Gone.

Personnel: Bettye Lavette: lead vocals, background vocals, hand claps; Larry Campbell: guitar, pedal steel guitar, mandolin; Leon Pendarvis: electric piano, piano, organ, keyboard bass; Keith Richards: guitar; Trombone Shorty; trombone; Gil Goldstein: organ, electric harpsichord, accordion, harmonium; Ivan Neville: clavinet; The Firey String Company: strings; Pino Palladino: bass; Steve Jordan: drums, percussion, background vocals, acoustic guitar, hand claps; The LaVettes: background vocals, hand claps.

Title: Things Have Changed | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Verve Music Group

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