(I've been away from the blog for awhile, but I'm hopefully back to the regular Tuesday/Friday updates.)
Bettye LaVette is proof that, in some people's careers, everything can go wrong. Bettye LaVette is also proof that sometimes, after everything's gone wrong for a decade or four, the fates finally smile down upon you.
I'm glad the fates smiled on Bettye LaVette. I'm glad because she worked for a long time and deserved a break, but I'm also glad because her voice is incredible and if she hadn't gotten a break, I never would've heard her sing.
I've Got My Own Hell to Raise opens with a powerful cover of Sinead O'Connor's a capella "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got." It's a great song and a great start to a very good album.
The second song is when that truth of the album really begins, though. It starts with a guitar that is a little rough and a little sexy and a little raunchy. Then a second guitar kicks in, and it's the kind of guitar that sounds as if it spent a few years wandering the streets before it decided to walk into the studio and be recorded. The drums creep up, and they are as thick and rich as the soil that holds the roots of a mighty tree. Then the bass starts, and it sounds as deep as the desire to discover joy when you're stuck in the roughest parts of a rough place.
Then LaVette starts singing.
The second song on the album, "Joy," is amazing. It is everything that simple music -- rock or soul or country or blues or hip-hop or punk -- can and should be. It is emotional, it is powerful, it is awesome, and it sets the tone for an album that practically overflows with soul.
(If you're wondering why I only gave the album four library-cards after those glowing comments, it's because there's very little range in the song tempos and dynamics. It's a relatively minor complaint, but it makes the album feel somewhat monotonous.)
The package has almost everything a CD jacket should have. There are a handful of photos that fit the mood of the record. There's a little bit of information about each of the songs (all of which are covers). There aren't lyrics, but it's easy to understand every word that LaVette sings. Best of all, though, is the essay by Rob Bowman, in which he tells LaVette's story. It's a good essay, and it makes me grateful that more and more artists are choosing to add more and more words to their liner notes.
Listen if you like: Stories. LaVette's got a fascinating story, and it comes across both in how she sings and the music she performs. Every song on the record is a cover of a song originally performed by a woman; if you like the stories that Fiona Apple, Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann, or Lucinda Williams tell, wait 'til you hear Bettye LaVette tell them.
If it were food, it'd be: a classic and complex wine that's been hiding out in dark rooms for 40 years, just waiting for its delicious flavor to be discovered.