There are few things that can heat up frigid winter nights like the raw, snarling sound of a real soul singer. On her new CD, “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” with a voice that could melt a glacier, Bettye LaVette puts her own thunderous spin on tunes by female artists ranging from Fiona Apple to Rosanne Cash. And the best thing: It’s hard to imagine any of the covered artists being anything but delighted with LaVette’s soulful and funkified interpretations.
If LaVette’s name is unfamiliar, she made her mark in the 1960s with hits like “Let Me Down Easy” and “He Made a Woman out of Me.” She continued to release albums for the next three decades. The song I remember most from those years is her version of “What Condition My Condition Was In,” which buries the original by First Edition with its trademark LaVette growl. But in recent years she seemed to disappear, until a little outfit called Anti Records rediscovered her and proposed the covers album.
At first she resisted, wanting to avoid the “victim” songs that she believed women these days were writing, but once she and producer Joe Henry started going through songs, she discovered that there were tunes that spoke to her and that were perfect vehicles for her strength and life experience.
Her version of Aimee Mann’s “How Am I Different” couldn’t be more different from Mann’s dreamy, wistful original version. LaVette’s feels more knowing – almost as if she’s taunting the man addressed in the song. When she sings, “I can’t do it / So move along / Do you really want to wait until I prove you wrong?” there’s less wanting in her voice than in Mann’s and more, “C’mon, we both know the score here.” The biggest difference is that it feels as if Mann is singing thoughtfully to herself, whereas in LaVette’s version, you know there is a man cringing on the other side of the room.
The CD takes its title from the Fiona Apple song, “Sleep to Dream,” which is my personal favorite track on this album. Apple is no wilting flower when it comes to belting out a tune, but LaVette takes the song’s sultriness and indignation one step further. When she sings, “This mind, this body, and this voice cannot be stifled by your deviant ways,” the intensity will send shivers down your spine. There’s a painful desire in her voice that comes with the years she has on Apple. Apple may have written the song, but LaVette feels it — and she makes us feel it.
LaVette adds a touch of funk in her cover of the Lucinda Williams’ song, “Joy.” It’s a song that will make you want to grab back time with a vengeance from anyone who’s even remotely wasted it with false promises. The two singers share a rawness in their voices — a sense that, dammit, they’ve lived. There’s a whole catalog of Williams’ tunes that LaVette would sound just perfect covering. Can I make my New Year’s wish for a joint tour now — or at least a duet between the two singers?
Starting January 15, LaVette will be touring all over the country and the nice thing is she plays midsize venues, which means you can get up close and personal. Even if you are not a person who normally heads for the R&B section of your CD store, it’s worth your time to give “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” a listen. You’ll find out really fast that there’s a reason they call it soul music.
For more information on Betty LaVette, visit: http://www.bettyelavette.com/.