Steve Earle - Washington Square Serenade
Bettye LaVette - Scene Of The Crime
It's not really necessary to add to the voluminous amount of writing about Steve Earle's career trajectory, including time spent as a convicted criminal and drug addict, other than to say that his more recent output has been some of the boldest and most exciting of his career. 'The Mountain', a bluegrass album made in collaboration with the Del McCoury band is one of the best contemporary examples of the genre, whilst 'Jerusalem' and 'The Revolution Starts Now', both politically confrontational albums unrepentant in their stark polemic, both bristle with raw tension and excitement.
'Washington Square Serenade' represents yet another sidestep, consisting of rhythmically driven acoustic guitars and some rather intrusive beats from Dust Brother John King. The basic musical template isn't really anything new for Earle, so the addition of drum machine backings seems like rather a forced way of reinventing the same wheel. Ultimately, when you're as literate and compelling a songwriter as Steve Earle, there isn't a great obligation to embrace modernity, especially when the result risks removing the timeless quality from the music.
The presence of a song like 'Satellite Radio' (Earle himself now presents a radio show Stateside) is intriguing given that much of 'Washington Square Serenade' sounds tailor-made for daytime radio airtime. 'Down Here Below' is the kind of talky narrative song that Earle does brilliantly, but it disintegrates into a rather bland singalong chorus that detracts from its overall force. Similarly, the first introduction of those 'beats' on 'Tennessee Blues' immediate push the song away from the margins and into the middle of the road. The album concludes with a rather ill-advised neutering of Tom Waits' excoriating 'Way Down In The Hole'.
Yet, in its more organic moments, 'Washington Square Serenade' is a pure delight. There are a clutch of simple, affecting love songs with less cluttered arrangements which give Earle's wisened voice greater room to communicate. 'City of Immigrants' is as broad and encompassing as its subject matter necessitates, with a provocative rhythm track that sounds more natural than its more overtly 'produced' counterparts.
Perhaps the production would work better if it was all more carefully integrated, instead of the beats so often sounding more like a casual afterthought. Earle's songwriting voice is still a confident and compelling one, but too often 'Washington Square Serenade' sounds dangerously bland. There are some lovely songs here, but an unadorned acoustic performance of them (like those Rick Rubin-produced Johnny Cash albums) might well have been more daring and more artistically successful.
Until a couple of years ago, when the wonderful 'I've Got My Own Hell To Raise' appeared on the Anti label, soul singer Bettye Lavette had rather disappeared from the radar. Seemingly a victim to the music industry's more fickle and unpredictable machinations, Lavette was making money as a jobbing singer, but firmly without the reputation and critical acumen she so clearly deserved. That album, produced by Joe Henry and comprising a collection of songs from empathetic female songwriters (Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams etc), changed all that, and also served as a timely reminder of her gritty and gutsy performances on classic soul sides like 'Let Me Down Easy' and the swampy 'He Made A Woman Out Of Me'.
Her next step was to return to the legendary Muscle Shoals studios where she cut her now infamous 'lost' album 'Child of the Seventies', one of the great albums by a female soul vocalist and almost left for good on the cutting room floor. Appearing on the record is David Hood, the bass player on the original sessions. Hood is father of Patterson Hood, from outstanding southern rockers Drive By Truckers who, taking time out from his main project, organised all the musicians and songs for this recording.
The emphasis here is very much on Lavette as soul survivor. Over time, this could easily get a little tiresome but one can hardly begrudge her the chance to vent her spleen here. It's all the more exciting because she mostly does this through the vehicle of other people's songs. By contrast with its predecessor, all the songs here, with the exception of the sole original, are the work of men. It's a timely reminder of how the great art of interpretative singing is rather rapidly dying out. Lavette is one of the few singers left who could proudly proclaim 'I don't write songs, I sing them.'
And boy does she sing! There's a whole world of life experience in that husky but commanding voice and right from the album's opening lines ('I've been this way too long to change now/You're gonna have to take me as I am!') there's a sense that her conviction and commitment have not been diminished by the passing of time. There's a righteousness and self belief on 'Choices', and her take on Frankie Miller's 'Jealousy' is appropriately smouldering and sensual.
'The Scene of the Crime' again emphasises the close connections between soul and country music, not just through the presence of Memphis legend Spooner Oldham on Wurlitzer (how resonant that old electric keyboard sounds here), but also through interpretations of songs from gifted songwriters firmly entrenched in the American tradition - Willie Nelson, John Hiatt and, perhaps less illustriously, Don Henley. The album's finest moment, as highlighted by Patterson Hood in his sincere and eloquent sleevenotes, is a version of 'Talking Old Soldiers', an obscure Elton John song. Lavette completely transforms it, turning it into a grand old statement of defiance and survival.
Unlike the Steve Earle record, there's little conscious attempt to push Lavette into the modern world. Instead, we get a brilliantly solid old soul sound, expertly crafted by the Drive By Truckers, providing the firm foundations for Lavette's merciless extemporising. The upbeat tracks feature some of the clearest, firmest backbeat grooves of this year or any other, whilst the ballads are deftly and sensitively handled, particularly the amount of space left in the rendition of Willie Nelson's 'Somebody Pick Up My Pieces'.
You know you've achieved legendary status when you can get away with referring to yourself in the third person. On that basis, the one original song here, 'Before The Money Came (The Battle of Bettye Lavette)', should ensure Lavette's place in the pantheon of soul legends is at last secure. The brazenly autobiographical lyrics were apparently captured by Patterson Hood from snippets of recalled studio conversation, and they neatly sum up the themes of this project and the unrelenting spirit of this determined woman.