(Above: Bettye LaVette owns The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. This performance helped inspire LaVette’s latest album, and is included as a bonus track.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
From Rod Stewart to Barry Manilow, albums based on the 1960s and ‘70s pop song book are a dime a dozen and usually worth even less. So while the concept behind Bettye LaVette’s latest album may not be novel, the delivery certainly is. LaVette has audaciously selected a baker’s dozen of the era’s biggest songs and steals every single performance.
Throughout “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” LaVette not only erases Paul McCartney and Elton John’s fingerprints from “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” respectively. She scrubs off four decades of radio saturation, turning in performances that arrive sounding completely fresh.
LaVette accomplishes this feat by ignoring the original melody and phrasing and focusing entirely on the lyrics. She crawls inside the words, mining new depth and emotion and lets that frame the arrangement. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” aches with loneliness. LaVette sneaks a reference to HIV/AIDS in “Salt of the Earth,” the Rolling Stones free-love era tribute to the working class. In “Don’t Let the Sun,” LaVette pleads with a desperation that feels like her life is hanging in the balance between light and dark. Robert Plant liked her treatment of “All Of My Love” so much he gave her the opening slot on his summer tour.
While every song fulfills the title by hailing from the United Kingdom, LaVette slyly hedges her bets with two numbers that are also associated with one of her primary influences, Nina Simone. LaVette mirrors Simone’s epic treatment and sparse arrangement of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity.” Earlier, LaVette reminds listeners that while the Animals may have had the bigger hit with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” it was originally a Simone single. LaVette happily returns the gift.
Five years into her comeback, LaVette sings like something to prove. At 64 she is a contemporary of most of the performers she covers on “Interpretations.” But while most of them are content to coast by on these very songs, LaVette still sings with a hunger fueled by the decades she unjustly lost in obscurity. The force and authority in her voice make LaVette one of the most vital and compelling artists today.