Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Bettye Lavette: Things Have Changed [Verve, 2018]
After her 2003 rebranding with minimalist producer-songwriter Dennis Walker, soul belter turned art singer LaVette got melodramatic on our ass, as old soul belters will. So neither the Brit-rock covers of 2010's Interpretations nor the Grammy fodder of 2015's Worthy speaks for itself with anything approaching the unforced impact of this highly uncanonical Dylan album. Beyond a dubious "It Ain't Me Babe" and a startlingly rearranged "Times They Are A-Changin'," LaVette's picks are obscure, half of them '80s titles left off both of the compilations since concocted to salvage his lost decade. And "interpretations" they're not. Instead LaVette invents a truly new Dylan--a Dylan who's an African-Ameican woman. Sure this Dylan has "soul"--reservoirs of empathy and spiritual mojo the Dylan we know could only gesture at, cut with a deep seam of the sardonic skepticism that never leaves him alone and finished off with a range, texture, and definition beyond the capabilities of his aging larynx. But the invention goes deeper than that. With R&B master drummer Steve Jordan overseeing an unfailing groove, LaVette messes with the songs at will, not just by changing genders as storylines require--"Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" is so different addressed to a man--and introducing the terms "bullshit" and "fucked up" to Dylan's lexicon, but by swapping and omitting stanzas and updating historical references, Annie Oakley and Belle Starr to Otis Redding and Bruno Mars. The closing "Going, Going Gone," which has no real place on 1973's Planet Waves, darkens the album's political through-line. And in the boldest stroke of all, "Mama, You Been on My Mind" addresses not some dumped old lady but this Dylan's mother. LaVette's mother too, sounds like. A