Album Review – Bettye LaVette – Blackbirds

Recently there has been a noticeable trend of artists releasing cover albums – some choose to feature songs from one artist like Emma Swift’s take on Bob Dylan, or Juliana Hatfield’s tributes to Olivia Newton John and The Police; while most go for a mixture of songs that have inspired them or influenced their music like recent releases from Tanya Donelly and Molly Tuttle.

Most of these projects are recorded as a diversion from their usual path of original songwriting. What you see rarely now are singers for whom interpretation is their sole focus. The few artists who make this choice tend to belong to classic genres like folk, jazz or blues. Singing old songs, for them, remains a vital way to communicate with history, and seek answers from the pioneers of the past.

On her new album ‘Blackbirds’ Grammy nominated blueswoman Bettye LaVette has chosen to record songs made famous by other black women, paying tribute to the legacy of the many iconic musicians who paved the hard road before her. This album shows that she has the talent and skills of interpretation to match even the best of them.

On opening song I Hold No Grudge she sings of forgiveness, and yet her voice is tough, uncompromising, defiant. Each note is lived in and raw. Originally sung by Nina Simone, that might seem like a hard act to follow but LaVette sings with a similar fearless ferocity.

One More Song is equally bruised. Sorrow and broken dreams are deep in the bones of these songs, which tells you much about the lived experience she shares with these singers. Written by long time Leonard Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson, it’s an achingly beautiful song.

The title Blues for the Weepers sums up the musical tone and the mood of this album. The weary huddle together, to listen and dream. Book of Lies, originally sung by Ruth Brown, is a wail of broken hearts, broken promises, broken dreams. I’m gonna love you til the sun don’t rise, she croons wallowing in the darkness of life.

Drinking Again, made famous by Dinah Washington, is that end of evening breakdown song where maudlin memories and despair fill your soul. LaVette makes an evening in smoky bar listening to music and drowning your sorrows feel like a necessary catharsis for the soul.

The song Strange Fruit needs no introduction. LaVette sings this classic not just as a tribute to Billie Holliday or to its history, but also because it remains shockingly relevant in today’s racist society. Few could fail to be moved by the pure pain of this performance.

Save Your Love for Me, made famous by Nancy Wilson is a heartfelt plea for connection and romance. After such sadness on the rest of the album some chance for redemption, for love remains.

To finish then with Blackbird by the Beatles continues her search for the light. LaVette and all these singers before her soared despite the hardships and the struggles they faced. When she sings I took my broken wings and taught myself how to fly, it sounds like a wail of pain, of survival, and of hope.

To be a truly great singer you have to have lived what you sing. To be a great interpreter of other people’s songs you must live twice. On Blackbirds LaVette has done just that, setting herself free to reach new heights.

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