OK, so this is a review of a standard CD by a non-standard performer. And while all 44.1 kHz and 16 bits of it is great, I suspect the album will sound even greater on an LP or a high-resolution download if we get one.
You see the recording in question is the latest release from the great Bettye LaVette, one of America’s great singers who has been enjoying a late career renaissance over the past 10 years or so. Like all of Bettye’s recent recordings, her albums are blend of carefully chosen covers — songs written by other artists which she rearranges, rewrites, rethinks, reinterprets and all-in-all makes them her own.
This new one — called simply Worthy — has some stunners, most notably her twists on songs from two mid-’60s British Invasion bands you may have heard of before: the Rolling Stones and the Beatles!
Now, covering a Beatle tune is not easy because A) most of those songs have been covered to death by artists all over the world and, to that, B) most of those versions really don’t do justice to the underlying tune since the artists typically walk through the performances.
Bettye LaVette does not walk through these performances.
Her haunting deconstruction of Lennon & McCartney’s Rubber Soul-era tune “Wait” is just astounding. Here she takes apart the proto-psychedelic rocker, stripping it down to its bluesy, lyrical roots, accompanied mostly by acoustic guitar with some spare organ, bass and pedal steel backing, never taking attention from her pain-drenched vocals.
You’ll never listen to that Beatle tune the same way again, I promise you.
The other tune of particular note is an almost reggae-fied rhythm’n’blues twist on the Stones’ “Complicated” (from Between the Buttons). But again, Bettye makes it her own by altering the lyrics just a teensy bit so the song reads in a somewhat autobiographical manner.
Other standouts (for me, anyhow) include the aim-for-the-jugular blues of “Just Between You and Me and the Wall, You’re a Fool” — how’s that for a direct punch to the throat! Likewise, the album opener, “Unbelievable,” by Bob Dylan (from his generally overlooked ’90s album Under the Red Sky) sounds fresh and invigorated in Bettye’s hands.
Album closer and title track, Worthy sounds so personal to her life story, one might think she wrote about herself (it was however written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Mary Gauthier):
“A diamond in the dirt
So totally concealed
Way down beneath the hurt
It was so hard for me to feel that I was
What a thing to claim!
Ashes into flames”
Sonics-wise, this CD sounds real good. I mean, it sounds pretty great as CDs go, and I can only imagine how fabulous the original recording would sound in a higher resolution format than the compact discs. That said, this recording was produced by the great Joe Henry, who previously made one of Bettye’s earlier albums — I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise from around 2005 — such an invigorating, inspiring listen.
Henry also produced Solomon Burke‘s now-classic Grammy Award-winning 2002 album Don’t Give Up On Me. If you liked the sound of that album — it was my fave that year — you’ll probably like this one which is painted with similar musical flavors and tone colors.
Anyhow, Worthy is a keeper and I suggest you pick it up. Hopefully if it sells well enough there will be an LP version of it and maybe even a high-resolution download to come. Until then, this is one of those instances where even digital CD sound can’t ruin a great performance.
Also, do note that there is a deluxe edition of Worthy available which includes a bonus live DVD recorded at London’s Jazz Cafe in 2014 — I’m going to get a copy of that myself because, y’know you can’t go wrong with a live Bettye LaVette show!
I can’t underscore this enough: be sure to check her shows out when she comes to your town. An amazing performer — at once passionate, graceful, sublime and ballsy — Bettye LaVette is totally inside her music and to be treasured.