Bettye LaVette’s voice, sanded raw and consumed by emotion, is a powerful witness: strong, down and above all, real. Those attributes infuse Thankful N’ Thoughtful with a truth in being, a delivery rendered from experience that declares “I know” just by the way she squares up to the songs.
Again drawing on a canon of known rock and pop songs—including Dylan, Tom Waits, Sly & the Family Stone, The Pogues and Neil Young—LaVette deepens their meaning with a slow-burn commitment to the lyrical nuance and the emotional resonance in the melodies. Just when we’re sure we know these songs, the gasoline-washed alto shows us how subtle the depths actually are.
The Black Keys’ “I’m Not The One” goes from cynics’ take to her rendering a witness of cruelty observed for a reality that’s not gonna happen. Over a slinky, almost foreboding beat and roomy track, LaVette’s voice has plenty of space to communicate exhaustion, frustration and especially disgust.
That same almost treacherous foreboding can be found in Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” but here the torment of desire is palpable. The blues moan strung against the pleasure of the good stuff draw the singer into knowing how it can all go so wrong—and succumbing to the torture aware.
In a world where celebrities are famous for nothing and obsessions are driven by conspicuous consumption, LaVette is an anomaly. She’s done her time on the non-Motown side of Detroit, toured in Broadway’s Bubbling Brown Sugar and survived a fistful of stillborn deals; what would destroy most only made the worldly vocalist more resolved.
Not that it’s all angst and drama. Savoy Brown’s “I’m Tired” gets a chugging reality check that’s pluck ’n’ spunk and getting on with it, while Patty Griffin’s “Time Will Do The Talking” is a supple, rolling blues number basking in the freedom of letting go of something bad for you. What should be sad is reborn as a celebration of self-empowerment and liberation from toxicity.
She has the Midas throat: something that takes what we know and makes it more. On Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” a threadbare rock chestnut if ever there was one, it’s a lament more than a whine, a declaration of ennui that somehow keeps its dignity.
Indeed, tackling Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken,” the song of the wages of time becomes a sassy rejoinder about not getting down. This is a proud woman who’ll call it as it is, yet refuses to lose heart, hope or happiness in the face of the storm. Thankful n’ thoughtful, indeed.