No one could ever say that Bettye LaVette doesn’t know precisely what her strengths are. The veteran soul singer, among the finest interpretive vocalists in modern music, has titled her latest collection Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. It isn’t just her immediately identifiable, raspy alto that makes LaVette such a treasure; it’s that she truly takes possession of a song, using her intuitive, soulful sense of phrasing to find new facets to even the most well-worn material. If the album’s title is a bit on the nose, there’s nothing the least bit obvious about LaVette’s inspired arrangements and performances.
That ability to render familiar songs unrecognizable serves her well on Interpretations, as she covers some canonical material by the premier British rock artists. The Beatles are heavily represented, with George Harrison’s melancholy “Isn’t It a Pity” and a pensive reading of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” both providing LaVette with opportunities to apply her world-weary perspective to contrasting emotional contexts. But her blistering turn on Lennon and McCartney’s “The Word” is one of the real highlights of the set, recalling some of the first-rate blues arrangements from her last album, The Scene of the Crime, and staking a fearsome claim that there may not be a better rock singer alive.
It’s a claim LaVette repeatedly backs up as she tackles Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love,” and the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” It’s the live recording of “Reign” that is perhaps the most impressive: A show-stopping performance from the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors, it finds LaVette at her most raw and powerful, and it speaks to the simply unassailable quality of her voice. Her rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Salt of the Earth,” on which she changes a few select words to give the song a more contemporary resonance, is the most flawless of her studio recordings here. And it’s some kind of minor miracle that she finds new life in Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.”
Divine intervention aside, it’s a matter of the unparalleled depth of LaVette’s interpretive skill that she can take a covers album and make it sound like a collection of originals. It’s all the more remarkable that she can do so with such consistency. Interpretations may be the fourth album in her career renaissance, but LaVette’s extraordinary gifts and her willingness to challenge herself have both kept her approach compelling and artistically rich.