Bettye LaVette: The Scene of the Crime (Anti-)

CD Review

Oct 24, 2007 at 2:06 pm

The promotional angle for 61-year-old classic-soul veteran Bettye LaVette's follow-up to her 2005 comeback, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, is that she's returning to Muscle Shoals, Ala., to record after over three decades and is being joined by Southern Rock band Drive-By Truckers. (In 1972, she recorded "Child of the Seventies" there, but it was never released until a few years ago — to great acclaim.) Indeed, the band's Patterson Hood produced — his father was a Muscle Shoals session player back when the city's recording studios were where greats like Aretha Franklin and Arthur Alexander cut hits. But actually, the Muscle Shoals/Drive-By Truckers aspect is the least impressive thing about The Scene of the Crime. The spare production sounds little like the funky, soulful, warm and tender Muscle Shoals music of the past; Drive By Truckers' support work is unobtrusive to the point of minimalism. But can LaVette ever wail with raw yet carefully modulated strength and urgency! She communicates defiance, desperation, mournfulness, pride, anger and, most of all, hard-earned honesty with every song. And she has some excellent material to work with, especially an old Elton John/Bernie Taupin ballad about the aging process called "Talking Old Soldiers," a bittersweet Willie Nelson reflection on loving and losing, "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces" and John Hiatt's Dylanesque swamp rocker, "Last Time." LaVette refuses to let any artifice creep between her singing and the song — every syllable has the impact of a life-or-death exhortation. She makes you shiver. (Steven Rosen) Grade:A-