It would be easy for someone like Bettye LaVette to allow her backstory—her decades upon decades of dues-paying and nearly-missed star turns, followed by her resurfacing in 2003 to widespread critical acclaim—to do most of the heavy lifting in the current phase of her career. But LaVette and her music aren’t about doing anything the easy way, and the third album in her renaissance, The Scene of the Crime, pays homage to her storied, heartbreaking past even as she crafts a sound that challenges convention at every turn. The album’s title refers to LaVette’s return to Muscle Shoals’s Fame Studios, where she recorded the material that was supposed to be her commercial breakthrough for Atlantic in 1972. Instead, that album was shelved (Rhino Handmade released it in 2005 because of the renewed interest in LaVette’s career), and the singer was dropped from Atlantic—something she references on her new album’s one original song, “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette).”
Among the musicians for her Atlantic recording sessions at Fame were Spooner Oldham and David Hood, father of Patterson Hood, one of the principal songwriters of Drive-By Truckers. Now, some 30 years later, Oldham and Hood once again contribute to LaVette’s recording sessions at Fame, while the entire line-up of Drive-By Truckers serves as her backing band for Scene of the Crime. Though this roster is drawn from her past, it isn’t a decision driven by simple nostalgia. Instead, pairing LaVette’s gritty vocals with the rough-hewn Truckers is an inspired choice. The album finds one of modern music’s deepest soul singers at the height of her powers and one of America’s fiercest rock bands fresh off their own creative peak (2006’s extraordinary A Blessing and a Curse), and this combination all but negates concerns with genre labels. While Joe Henry’s tasteful production on 2005’s excellent I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise occasionally limited LaVette, the new album, co-produced by LaVette with Patterson Hood and David Barbe, finds her unrestrained. Elements of vintage R&B, classic country, and sweaty bar-rock infuse the Truckers’ playing and LaVette’s deliveries, and the result is that LaVette sounds liberated. As fast and loose as it plays with genre, Scene of the Crime is the purest sort of soul record.
Scene of the Crime is, like its predecessor, a master class in true interpretive singing. As she did previously with remakes of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” and Lucinda Williams’s “Joy,” LaVette—with the razor-wire of her tone and a sense of phrasing that regards meter as a mere suggestion of how a song might be sung—strong-arms ownership of the album’s nine cover tunes from their original performers. What elevates her above even the finest song interpreters is her consistent ability to render the most well known songs unrecognizable on first listen. Here, her reading of Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” is as wrenching as anything she’s ever recorded, while she delivers Eddie Hinton’s “I Still Want to Be Your Baby (Take Me As I Am)” with a fierce sexuality that recalls vintage Tina Turner. The album’s finest moment, though, is her take on Elton John’s “Talking Old Soldiers,” a lament infused with a lifetime’s worth of heartache and wisdom. When she wails, “How the hell do they know how it feels to have a graveyard for a friend,” the breaks in her voice answer her own question, and the effect is devastating. It’s a relief, then, to hear her celebrate her vindication on the next song, “Before the Money Came.”
But “Before the Money Came,” like the whole album, doesn’t just dwell on the past; instead, it chronicles exactly why LaVette deserves both the success and the artistic freedom she finally has, and it showcases why she’s possibly the only singer alive with the chops to overshadow a tour-de-force performance by Drive-By Truckers and some top-shelf session musicians. Scene of the Crime is an album that has been a lifetime in the making, and it was fully worth the wait. From its song selection to the production choices and the powerhouse vocal performances, the album plays to every single one of LaVette’s strengths. As such, Scene of the Crime is as comprehensive and as thorough an artistic declaration of self as any in recent memory.