Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bettye Lavette

  • A Woman Like Me [Blues Express, 2003] A
  • I've Got My Own Hell to Raise [Anti-, 2005] ***
  • The Scene of the Crime [Anti-, 2007] **
  • Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook [Anti-, 2010] Choice Cuts
  • Things Have Changed [Verve, 2018] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

A Woman Like Me [Blues Express, 2003]
From Ann Peebles to Etta Jones, there are dozens of great lost soul divas out there, every one collectible and every one overrated. Lavette resurfaced seriously when she shouted her way into Bubbling Brown Sugar and has inspired a reissue boomlet in elderly nations that don't want to bomb Iraq, but buying the product, even from, is impossible. That said, I intend to keep trying. The mad genius of this album is producer-songwriter Dennis Walker, who having long ago sculpted Robert Cray as an obsessed adulterer-cuckold now turns three of the bluesman's male-chauvinist classics into painful cries of victimization and, with help from guitarist Alan Mirikitani, crafts a batch of long-suffering miniatures that make the record. But Lavette makes the songs--though she's gritty and loves to testify, she never overdoes it. What's more, she's got the psychological equilibrium to find optimistic material she can put across just as passionately. That's why Walker sequenced the material to move Lavette toward independence--and wrote the strong-willed title track with a woman. A

I've Got My Own Hell to Raise [Anti-, 2005]
Well-culled material sung harder than necessary, which was probably the idea ("Sleep to Dream," "How Am I Different"). ***

The Scene of the Crime [Anti-, 2007]
And I thought recording with the Drive-By Truckers meant Patterson Hood would write her some songs--and rein her in a little, maybe ("I Still Want to Be Your Baby [Take Me Like I Am]," "The Last Time"). **

Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook [Anti-, 2010]
"The Word"; "Salt of the Earth" Choice Cuts

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