After an improbable hit (“My Man - He’s a Lovin’ Man”) as a 16 year old in 1962, Bettye Lavette bounced from label to label and recorded only sporadically, generally with unsuccessful commercial results. She’s always knocked people out live, though, so despite her lack of success she has something of a legendary reputation, and perhaps the timing is finally right for her to reap some rewards as a result. Teaming with the same supportive label (Anti Records) and talented producer/arranger (John Henry, whose solo work is also well-worth checking out) who worked wonders for Solomon Burke on his comeback album, Don’t Give Up On Me, I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise has gotten a fair amount of press and acclaim lately, and for good reason. Whereas Henry had gotten mostly male songwriters to pen new material specifically for Burke, here Lavette interprets ten modern songs all previously written by women. Lavette’s gift is in the way that she inhabits these songs, which become her own (mostly hard luck) stories, and Henry’s stripped down arrangements and the subtle playing of her talented backing band (bassists Dave Pilch (acoustic, stand-up) and Paul Bryan (electric), organist/pianist Lisa Coleman, and guitarists Chris Bruce and Doyle Bramhall II) ensures that the spotlight is always on Lavette’s voice. Her tough yet ravaged voice somewhat recalls Tina Turner, and like Tina Bettye feels comfortable singing soul and pop and rock, though I agree with Bettye when she says “it don’t matter what song I sing it’s gonna sound like me; I’m a soul singer whether I sing an aria or rhythm and blues.” Songs by accomplished writers such as Sinead O’Connor, Lucinda Williams, Joan Armatrading, Roseanne Cash, Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann, and Fiona Apple are given the Lavette stamp, and if I have a criticism of the album it would be that I wish there were more slow, smoldering soul ballads such as “Down To Zero” (Armatrading) and “Just Say So” (Cathy Majeski/John Scott Sherrill), the album’s definite high points for me. Perhaps a couple of songs are unremarkable, but there are plenty of other highlights as well, such as her a cappela, gospel-ish rendition of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” her hard charging, passionate take on Lucinda Williams’ “Joy,” her re-imagining of Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” as a moody late night lament, the groovy low-key funk of Toni Brown’s “Only Time Will Tell,” and her boldly idiosyncratic, edgy interpretation of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep To Dream,” a lyric from which this album takes its title. Her version of Sharon Robinson’s “The High Road” is comparatively low-key but still soulful, while Roseanne Cash’s “On The Surface” and Aimee Mann’s “How Am I Different” lean more towards rock and pop, respectively, but again the emotional core of all of these songs comes straight from Lavette’s wise, weathered, vulnerable voice. Indeed, with a big assist from Henry, Bettye Lavette raises plenty of hell on this album, which has raised plenty of eyebrows, and none too soon (she is approaching 60, after all). I’m always bitching to anyone who will listen that all the great soul singers are gone, but this album is a heartening reminder that there are still some significant talents out there laying it all on the line, using that simple but oh-so-effective musical style as their medium.
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