The Scene of the Crime
y now the Bettye LaVette backstory doesn't matter. The "lost classic" has come and gone, and the triumphant return has been both. At this point there's no need for either sentimental sympathy or the surprise of discovery. The title of the new album, The Scene of the Crime, refers to her recording again at Muscle Shoals, where she cut her infamously-unreleased Child of the Seventies album. Even so, by now, LaVette's simply a soul singer with a new record. Of course it doesn't hurt that she's accompanied by the Drive-By Truckers and a handful of old Muscle Shoals session men, but it's still her voice and interpretive skills that carry the record.
The musicians do nail the perfect mood for LaVette's style. The Truckers wisely forego their usual Southern rock sound for an R&B approach suitable for the Fame Studios tradition. Patterson Hood brings in his father David (an original member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) to play bass on three tracks, including the moving cover of Elton John's "Talking Old Soldiers." The key sounds, not unexpectedly, frequently come from Spooner Oldham's Wurlitzer. Oldham, like the other musicians, never vies for the spotlight, content to set the groove or develop atmosphere. The resulting music sounds dated, but with clear ties to the soul of the early Muscle Shoals days (think early Stax recordings).
LaVette uses this high-quality support to show off her skills. Her voice in itself is impressive. A little rough and raspy, it's an instrument stronger in its control than its expanse. In some ways an opposite of a singer like Sharon Jones, LaVette doesn't go for the big crescendos or booming notes for her expressiveness, digging, instead into the Alabama swamp for her delivery. Consider her roots to be more in the blues than in the gospel side of R&B.
While the voice itself never flags, LaVette's interpretative abilities remain just as important to her success. "I Still Want to Be Your Baby (Take Me Like I Am)" utilizes LaVette's clipped phrasing to make a statement at once independent and seductive, but the singer also knows when to rush a phrase, fitting too many words into one breath to keep the song flexible even while pinning down a characterization. LaVette pauses every two or three syllables on "So what if I drink a little bit—that's alright," but follows it with the run-together "Daddy, didn't you tell me you like to hear me laugh." The shift varies the song, but it also matches defiance with invitation, adding a playful eyebrow raise to the angled-away body.
We should have expected this, but before we leave, we do return to the backstory. LaVette has one songwriting credit on this album, "Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)" (co-written with Patterson Hood). Musically and vocally, it's one of the nastier cuts on the disc, LaVette's cathartic release on her music career, the rise from poverty to music-industry screwing. Mike Cooley echoes the singer's sentiments with a cutting lead guitar line. LaVette also turns the title phrase from a biographical description (life before fame) into bile left over from the 30-year hiccup in her career. When she sings, "I wouldn't cross over, so it took me a while ... before the money came," it's equal parts pride and frustration, and the full-band (a sextet here) matches the mood perfectly. It'd be nice to get away from the biography and stick to the art, but when the two blend so well, there's really no need to.