Friday, December 31, 2010


A case study in both the power and limits of a transformative soul interpretation, Bettye LaVette's Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook is as mixed-bag of a recording as 2010 produced.

The seeds of the project were planted in 2008, when Michigan-born LaVette, an Aretha Franklin contemporary and one of the world's truly great living soul singers, was tapped by eventual Interpretations producers Michael Stevens and Rob Mathes to perform The Who's Love Reign O'er Me at a Kennedy Center celebration in the band's honor.

The powerhouse performance, which caps this album, was the triumph of the night, connecting The Who's work to its R&B roots in ways even Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry had not previously contemplated.  Following another collaborative effort with Stevens for President Obama's inauguration, LaVette asked Stevens and Mathes to help her develop her next album of covers (LaVette doesn't write her own material, though she rearranges structures and changes lyrics regularly here), and after initially considering an LP dedicated solely to Beatle's classics, it was decided to widened the approach to include high points from the full British Rock canon of the 60s and 70s. 

Things get off to a tremendous start with The Beatles The Word, the song transfigured from its relatively simple pop beginnings into a vibrant gospel/funk stomp.  With the song's final few minutes completely unrecognizable from the original, it stands as the most dramatically re-imagined song on the album.

And then the album's...and LaVette's...limitations start to set in.

As great and distinct a vocalist as LaVette is, she is not a particularly versatile one, instead morphing everything she touches to fit her own inimitable, gut-wrenching, highly emotive style.  I sometimes think of her as the female counterpart to The Four Tops' Levi Stubbs.  Whether she's singing about war, a failed relationship, a casual walk in the park, or buying paper towels in bulk at Costco,  everything she touches is delivered with a life-or-death urgency.

Thus the selections in Interpretations that slide easiest into this emotional conversion, the earnest Beatles numbers and those songs that already owed a debt of influence to American R&B, like Traffic's No Time To Live or The Stone's Salt Of The Earth, come off well, but the LP's two art-rock originals, Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and The Moody Blues Nights In White Satin, are unqualified disasters.

To her credit, LaVette openly admits in the liner notes to having never heard many of these tracks before she began selecting material, and that having spent the bulk of her life listening exclusively to black radio, the hardest aspect of working on the album was making personal sense of lyrics aimed at and held sacred by white males now in their fifties.  Many times on this LP, she overcomes the translational hurdles, but on these two tracks, there's just too much of a cultural divide to cross.

Robbed of the their main source of power, the struggle to express deep emotion through the barriers of traditional British restraint and intellectual, white male repression, Wish You Were Here and Nights In White Satin simply fall apart.  Sometimes the inability to say something is more exciting than the ability to say it forcefully, a concept LaVette and her team fail to take to heart.

But those are just two tracks out of thirteen.

The bigger drag on Interpretations is the often sterile musicianship by Mathes and his team of hired studio hands.

It's "session man" all the way, competent, precise, but uninspired and devoid of personality, consistently failing to match the raw intensity LaVette brings to her vocals.

With LaVette already converting the tempo on most of these tracks down to a slow crawl, the inability of the musicians to match her emotional fire leads to an album that is far, far duller in parts than it really has any right to be.  One imagines that had LaVette recorded these numbers with a cohesive band of true personality, as she did on her much better '07 release Scene Of The Crime with the Drive-By Truckers, the results on tracks like No Time To Live, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, and Derek And The Domino's Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad could have been significantly better.  Only on Ringo Starr's It Don't Come Easy, which is transformed into a slow, world-weary blues grinder of undeniable force, does the musicianship seem to match the level of LaVette's commitment.

So, in the end, a disappointing mild recommend from me.

I hate coming down on a veteran like LaVette who's overpaid her dues tenfold,  and I love the idea behind this album, but truth be told, despite some serious highs...and the fact that I think many will enjoy hearing these old favorites given such a radical makeover...Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook often left me bored.

Status: Mild Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: The Word, No Time To Live, It Don't Come Easy, Love Reign O'er Me.

Here's the Kennedy Center Honors performance of Love Reign O'er Me that got the ball rolling.

Component Breakdown:
1. The Word - 9
2. No Time To Live - 8
3. Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood - 5
4. All My Love - 6
5. Isn't It A Pity - 8
6. Wish You Were Here - 4
7. It Don't Come Easy - 9
8. Maybe I'm Amazed - 7
9. Salt Of The Earth - 7
10. Nights In White Satin - 3
11. Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad - 7
12. Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me - 6
13. Love Reign O'er Me - 9
Intangibles - Low

What are your thoughts on Bettye Lavette's Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook?  Let readers know!

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