Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bettye LaVette - The Scene of the Crime

I've written previously about the inspiring trends of music in the 21st century. My reviews of albums by Rodrigo y Gabriela and Vampire Weekend have touched on the global-is-local quality of music being made today that's free of previous geographic constraints. My review of She & Him's latest touched on the loving re-construction of earlier generation's sounds. My review today hits on a similarly inspiring trend to that of re-creating genres of the past; the resurrection of forgotten stars.

The mainstream music industry has been doing this for a while now, probably since Elvis' big "comeback." We saw Johnny Cash's career resurrected by Rick Rubin's American series, and Santana unexpectedly crashed both the Billboard charts and the Grammys a decade back under Clive Davis' management. While those were major label projects, smaller labels have been doing their fair share of reclamations, also. Chief among them is ANTI- Records.

The ANTI- label has been attracting some major talent. In addition to a growing roster of contemporary acts like Neko Case, Jason Lytle and Islands, ANTI- has also signed a spate of music veterans that go back decades, regardless of their genres. Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Marianne Faithfull, Solomon Burke, Os Mutantes, Booker T. and Mavis Staples all call ANTI- their current home. What these artists share in common is a lifetime of acclaimed music without regard to mainstream popularity. They bring a veterans' grizzled wisdom to their contemporary work that often puts up-and-comers to shame. It's a quality that Bettye LaVette's The Scene of the Crime has in spades.

LaVette's recording career has been long and filled with many more downs than ups. I'll leave it to her own biography to fill in those interested in her personal trials and travails, because what I want to focus on here is this album. Assisted by the Drive-By Truckers, one of the best southern rock bands out there today, she assembles a terrific collection of covers [with the pointed exception of the rip-roarin' original "Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)", which is biographical self-aggrandizing of the best kind.] She effortlessly bounces back and forth between bluesy rockers (letting the Truckers run wild) like the opening track and then quietly soulful ballads. Her voice, aged by both years and pain, is tough. It evokes heartbreak, anger, pride and eventually ecstasy over the course of the album.

LaVette's profile has been raised significantly in the last decade. From the incredibly unlikely resurrection of her unheard full-length album Child of the Seventies after 30 years to her recent appearances at the Kennedy Center Honors (singing the crap out of the Who's "Love, Reign O'er Me") and the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, LaVette is now poised as a soul veteran with a life's worth of lessons to teach today's younger musicians. It's a good thing, too, because the soul revival has been another exciting genre revival among the many going on right now. It's a good time to be listening to music, and for LaVette, it's high time we listened to hers.


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