It’s one of soul’s ironies that many great stylists were largely ignored by the mainstream when they were in their pomp in the 60s and 70s. People like James Carr, Bobby Hebb, and Oscar Toney Jr and to some extent Solomon Burke were revered by proper soul collectors but neglected by the so called “serious” music buffs who somehow believed that gritty down home soul was one genre below them. Then in the late 90s a road to Damascus moment; the chattering classes suddenly found that it was OK – even cool – to “like” 60s soul – and the more down home the better. The newly “discovered ” artists enjoyed a minor renaissance but to keep their new audience happy many of the old-timers took to recording material that was somehow alien to their roots. They rushed to cut songs by perceived trendy and acceptable writers like Bob Dylan, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Pete Townshend, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Neil Young and so on.
One artist whose career path has followed this particular pattern is Michigan soul diva Bettye LaVette. She established her soul credentials with 1965’s wonderful ‘Let Me Down Easy’ and other cuts on labels like Lupine, Karen and Calla made her a cult figure on the Northern soul scene… but to the mainstream she was anonymous. Then as the new millennium dawned she was discovered by a new breed of media-based trend setters. She emerged from the oldies circuit and the touring musicals to begin recording again … and, yes, a lot of her material was drawn from the song books of writers like those we’ve just listed.
Two years ago she recorded a whole album of British rock classics. It left most of the soul fraternity cold but was given rave write ups in the broadsheet reviews pages. It’s logical therefore that her label, Anti, repeat the formula for this follow-up. Here though Ms L and her producers cast the net wider than just the UK. The writers here include The Black Keys, Patty Griffin, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Neil Young and, naturally, Bob Dylan. Dylan’s ‘Everything Is Broken’ kicks off proceedings and sets the tone for what follows…. heavy, lugubrious and intense, with only Bettye’s world weary vocal redeeming matters. It’s no coincidence that the two best cuts are songs with a black music pedigree – Gnarls Barclay’s ‘Crazy’ and Sly Stone’s ‘Thankful N’Thoughtful – no wonder the powers that be used that as the LP’s title. Bettye sounds much more at home on these two than she does say on Ewan MacColl’s ‘Dirty Old Town’ – a 50s paean to the vagaries of living and loving in the grimy backstreets of Salford, Lancashire!