Bettye LaVette doesn't write her own songs, but she doesn't have to -- by the time she's finished singing a tune, LaVette has turned it into something entirely her own, an emotional statement that's original and complete. Since LaVette reminded American listeners that she was still working at the top of her game with the 2003 live set A Woman Like Me, she's been releasing a steady stream of new albums confirming her status as one of the strongest and most individual interpretive vocalists in the 21st century. LaVette's first studio album after A Woman Like Me was the outstanding I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, produced by Joe Henry, and for 2014's Worthy, LaVette has teamed up again with Henry and several of the same musicians who played on those sessions.
There are certain female voices within the fabric of contemporary American soul music that ought to be appreciated maybe just a little bit more than they are. You know, the ones that aren’t backed with a name like Aretha Franklin. Or the ones that Jeff Tweedy didn’t offer to resurrect with a series of great collaborative records. Or the ones not prominently featured on an Oscar-winning documentary.
On her fifth superb studio album in a decade, seasoned soul singer LaVette reunites with producer-musician Joe Henry, who worked with her on 2005’s “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” the album that brought her to the masses, where she belongs. “Worthy” is another finely curated set of songs — by the likes of Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, and Jagger and Richards — that have little in common aside from LaVette’s ability to burrow deep into their pathos and, by extension, under our skin. A taut song stylist known for her intensity, LaVette is unusually at ease here.
The remarkable journey of soul singer Bettye LaVette has enough twists, turns, heartbreak and triumph to make a biopic far more fascinating than those made for bigger names. Her artistic path, too, has been an interesting one. After years of trying to make it in the world of R&B, she turned to producer Joe Henry and iconoclastic label Anti- to walk a new road, one in which songs taken from the worlds of rock, country and folk were filtered through her tonally limited but emotionally expressive voice and recast as future blues, soul and jazz classics.