Betty LaVette Thankful N’ Thoughtful Review

Album. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

Possibly the best set of songs she’s ever recorded.

Lloyd Bradley 2012

When most other artists do them, they’re cover versions. But when Bettye LaVette does them, they’re “interpretations”, such is her talent for getting inside a song and extracting a depth of soul and meaning that might even surprise the original artists.

In 2010, LaVette put out a collection of renovated British rock numbers. And now it’s the American songbook’s turn, with the notable exception of Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town. It’s here in two versions, of differing intensity, the first being the deepest southern soul that is LaVette’s stock in trade. But the ‘slow version’ is all about a muffled drum riff and minimal guitars, pushing the narrative forward and giving the song new poignancy.  

Her ability and experience is so great that when this selection of songs is reworked into the kind of southern soul meets contemporary blues she does so gloriously, it’s only Dirty Old Town and The Black Keys’ I’m Not the One that stay within expected parameters. Elsewhere, she finds room to stir in other flavours.

Dylan’s Everything Is Broken is appropriately grumbling, livened up (barely) by a few guitar twiddles into gutsy blues-rock. Yesterday Is Here (Tom Waits) takes her to New Orleans and the roots of jazz, while surging organ and delicate guitar work in Time Will Do the Talking (Patty Griffin) transforms it from gentle acoustic to the best Memphis soul Willie Mitchell had nothing to do with. Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy gets the same treatment and almost hits those heights.

Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere takes on a country tinge, and Sly Stone’s title track becomes an intriguingly noodling blues-rocker. Elsewhere, Fair Enough (Beth Nielsen Chapman) is blues as it was perceived in the mid-1970s, Albert King-style.

It’s a marvellous, spine-tingling journey around some not-so-obvious American songs, and also a stunning tutorial in different American music styles, strung together by LaVette’s sensuous singing. With each of her albums improving on the last, Thankful N’ Thoughtful continues the upward curve. It is, possibly, the best set of songs she’s ever recorded.

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