Bettye LaVette: The Scene of the Crime

As a rule, I don't like singers who only perform other people's songs. We don't celebrate authors who simply re-tell other writer's stories, and we don't go to galleries to see paintings by artists who blatantly copy other artists, so why should we praise singers who only sing other people's songs?

Bettye LaVette has made me reconsider the value of my rule. LaVette does magical things to other people's songs. She finds things in the originals that none of us knew were there, and she reinvents the songs based on her discoveries.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
On the surface, this album is similar to LaVette's first release on Anti Records. On closer listen, though, it feels totally different. This album seems darker and more painful than I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. Almost as if LaVette raised her hell, and is now sitting in the aftermath, looking around at how different things have become.

The Scene of the Crime is unquestionably a soul record, but hints of rock and country flow through it. It might be because producer Patterson Hood and most of LaVette's session band are all members of alt-country heavyweights Drive-By Truckers, or it might be because LaVette understands all great music shares a common spirit that transcends categorization. Take a listen to Willie Nelson's "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces" and you'll hear how LaVette found the soul inside a great a country song.

And don't even get me started on her rendition of Elton John's "Talking Old Soldiers". This one gives me chills.

Packaging: 3.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The liner notes follow the same basic theme as LaVette's last album: simple design, minimal use of color, a few stark photos, detailed credits, and an essay. The essay is well-written, and it gives me an appreciation for pretty much every person and place that was involved in the making of this record. On the downside, the photos -- mostly of the vintage studio gear from Muscle Shoals' Fame Studios -- are generic, and the striped back cover doesn't make any sense. I guess it's supposed to represent the stripes on a prison uniform, but it just looks like some kind of random, seizure-inducing optical illusion.

Listen if you like: Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, Drive-By Truckers

If it were food, it'd be: a late-night shot of whiskey in a lonely Alabama dive bar


Professor Rosseforp said...

I think we do enjoy paintings where the artist has re-interpreted (copy?) other paintings. Van Gogh's painting of Millais' The Sower is one, I think, although I haven't checked it. This is without the issue of traditional themes (Madonna with child etc).
William Shakespeare (whoever he may have been) was not averse to borrowing plots and scenarios for his plays.
Modern film-makers have borrowed his stories (West Side Story, Romeo+Juliet).
So I don't have a problem with singers interpreting the works of others. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, The Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin come to mind.
Mind you, I rescind that permission in the case of Elvis Costello, who has done far too many covers with far too many accomplices and far too badly.

The Mad Hatter said...

Drive-By Truckers and Tina Turner? Hrmmm

Sarah said...


I know that this isn't exactly a comment, but I couldn't find your e-mail address, and I wanted to write and tell you about a new website for artists, musicians, fashion designers, and filmmakers: www.PutItOn.com. I've been using the site as an artist and have my work there, and am trying to support it because I believe in it. Basically, the site allows artists from all over the world to connect, display their portfolios, and sell their work (with NO commission taken!). The site gives artists a FREE gigabyte of space to showcase their portfolios, allows you to stream audio and video works, lets you create live personal broadcasts, and translates any writing into ten different languages. If you could take the time to visit the site, and if you like it too, let your readers know about it, and even sign up yourself or link to it on your site it would be greatly appreciated! We are trying to make a go of helping out artists everywhere and are trying to get the word out, so please help us out if you like the site after checking it out! Thank you!

All the best,
Sarah at PutItOn.com

P.S. To add onto what Professor Rosseforp said, there is an entire postmodern visual arts movement centered on the act of appropriation... Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Richard Pettibone, etc. Check out the Pictures Generation at the Metropolitan Museum.

The Mad Hatter said...