Gained in Translation: Bettye LaVette Interprets British Rock Songs

Bettye LaVette spells her name funny, okay? But so what. If you could sing like LaVette, you could spell your name “F-U-C-K-H-E-A-D” and tell people it’s pronounced “Steven Sondheim.” And they’d be legally required to believe you. That’s the way it works when you sing like Bettye LaVette.

Okay, maybe it’s not. But it should be. LaVette started recording music at the tender age of 16, back in 1962. But she didn’t go from there straight to being an icon of soul music, which is weird to me. It probably has something to do with the fact that Atlantic pulled the plug on her Child of the Seventies project before it got off the ground (word on the street is they never explained to Bettye why they would do such a stupid thing). It wasn’t until the early 21st century that LaVette started to really get the attention her voice deserves; a French soul enthusiast named Gilles Petard released Child of the Seventies under the title Souvenirs on his Art and Soul label. She was later signed to her current home, Anti- Records, and released I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, a covers album featuring only songs written by women (and containing powerful renditions of songs by Sinead O’Connor, Lucinda Williams, and Aimee Mann, among others).

LaVette got back into the covers game this year with Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which, sadly, does not feature a cover of Iron Maiden’s “Two Minutes to Midnight” (consider it for Interpretations Volume 2, will you, Bettye?). It does feature amazing and unique takes on songs from the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and the Who (sorry, kids. You don’t get to hear Bettye LaVette wail about “teenage wasteland”- she chose “Love Reign O’er Me” over “Baba O’Riley.” It’s still pretty awesome). LaVette did some lyrical tweaks with some of the songs (she updated the Stones’ “Salt of the Earth” to give it a more modern, American flavor) and was, thank goodness, none-too-faithful to the original versions of any of the tracks. The album’s called Interpretations and it lives up to its name. Schmaltzy songs like Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” and the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” all benefit from the soul and grit that LaVette brings to each performance. Classics like Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love” enjoy new life as achingly beautiful soul songs; it’s  hard to be disappointed with LaVette’s renditions, no matter how much you love the originals.

So Interpretations continues a trend LaVette really set back with I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise – this woman knows how to fucking own a cover song and she proves that bringing honest soul to your songs is way more important than being a diva. Okay, that’s two trends. Let’s talk about the second one first. I have this idea, I’ve had it since Songs in A Minor, that Alicia Keys will one day, probably in her forties or fifties, make an album that cements her as a standard-bearer for American soul music. Ms. Keys, Bettye LaVette is pointing the way for you. Follow her lead, take big risks, and (most importantly for Alicia Keys) keep the production simple. Less programming, more live instruments, and not too many of those. Put your voice and your songwriting (which could use some work, to be honest) front and center. There aren’t many soul or R&B performers going today who really display the musical potential to make great (read: not over-produced, teen pop bullshit) soul music in the future (the first person who mentions Joss Stone will be hit in the face with a frozen halibut. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday: smack! Frozen halibut to the face. That’s karma, baby), but Alicia Keys is one of them. Res (pronounced “Reese” – don’t ask me why she spells it that way)  is another one (probably a better one, if more people listened to her), but she doesn’t seem to be up to much these days and – holy shit! – she apparently just put out a new album. I hope it’s as good as How I Do. I better order that sucker now.

Where the hell was I?

Oh yeah. I think Alicia Keys has some potential and I think the way for her to realize that potential is to listen to Bettye LaVette records. The arrangements on Interpretations are not fancy – they don’t have to be. The music exists to support one of the most powerful and expressive voices in American music. She chooses songs that allow her to showcase her voice, which brings us back around (at long last) to the first Bettye LaVette trend that I alluded to – she knows how to take someone else’s song and make it her own. Plenty of people can do this in a bad way (see My Chemical Romance’s cover of “Desolation Row” and/or Smash Mouth’s cover of… well, any song they’ve ever covered), but it takes real talent to honor a song someone else has written (and/or made famous) and also put your own stamp on it.

Unless you’re a wedding band, there’s no good reason to do covers (I know some people will dispute this, but hear me out) unless you’re lending a little something different to the song. If I want to hear a faithful rendition of “Wish You Were Here,” I listen to the Pink Floyd album of which it is the title track. If I want to hear a version of that song that is imbued with an old, African-American woman’s sense of loss and grief, I’ll listen to Bettye LaVette’s version. Same song, yes, but performed from two different perspectives, wishing distinctly different people were here. This old-school soul stuff may seem cheesy to some people and I’ll admit that covers albums are always a slightly dicey proposition, but LaVette makes it very easy to forget that I’ve heard these songs before. Any woman who can negotiate the music industry with as much verve and patience as Bettye LaVette has and still has the energy left to make me give a shit about “Maybe I’m Amazed” is deserving of the highest possible praise.

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