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September 2005

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Bettye Lavette
I've Got My Own Hell To Raise
Anti Records

Bettye LavetteAs I began this review my first thought was, will I be able to do justice to the incredible journey that Bettye LaVette and company took me on, and most importantly, will I be able to express the ultimate satisfaction I received from this release?

When I first learned about this new project early this year, and that it would be a collection of songs written by women, my mind immediately started racing. Will she do "Gee Whiz" by Carla Thomas, or perhaps a sexy Millie Jackson song, or even "Tonight's The Night" by Betty Wright? Yeah, Betty Wright would be so cool.

So you can imagine my surprise when I opened the booklet and there were songs by country artists Rosanne Cash and Dolly Parton, and rock artists such as Lucinda Williams, Fiona Apple and Sinead O'Connor. (Yup, THAT Sinead O'Connor, a far cry from Carla Thomas I might add ). And when the first song started, an unaccompanied version of O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," I sat there wide-eyed and speechless.

What is this? I mean Bettye LaVette has always been a soul singer. As I listened to each song for the first time, my mind drifted back to the first time I heard Tom Waits cover an Eagles song, or Bruce Springsteen do a Tom Waits song, and in both instances they made the songs their own. But they were rock singers, and Bettye LaVette is a soul singer

Then it all fell into place. What is soul anyway? Webster's Dictionary defines soulful as "full of or expressing feeling or emotion." And what we have here are ten of the most soulful songs you will ever hear.

Soul can come by way of an artist's voice or from an artist's paint brush. Artist Ernie Barnes' painting for the cover of Marvin Gaye's I Want You album was about as soulful as art can get, as was Picasso's abstract paintings. They all were feelings from within their souls.

So then, this is a great album, a great soulful album.

I connected with many of the songs right away, like the Sharon Robinson-penned "The Right Road," which was written expressly for Bettye. Dolly Parton's slightly-altered lyrics of "Little Sparrow" found a place in my heart almost immediately, but I have to admit seeing her perform this on The David Letterman show helped speed it along to a place in my heart.

Then there is the obscure country song by Bobbie Cryner, "Just Say So." Listen to the ending of this song, where Bettye repeats "say it" four times before ending with the emotion laden "just say so." At this point, I knew that Bettye and producer Joe Henry had succeeded in making this a unique and successful outing. The emotional peaks that Bettye reaches with her incredible voice, caresses you with its pain, passion and tenderness.

I would also like to acknowledge the informative liner notes by Rob Bowman, which is worth the price of admission by itself. It gives us a great insight to Bettye's journey to this point in her career, and how this release came to fruition. (Bowman is the author of "Soulsville, USA - The Story of Stax Records," the comprehensive book about the rise and fall of that great label. If you loved Stax records, you should really check it out too.)

This album of one woman's soul, expressing many women's words. It is a work of art, an album to be listened to, loved, and studied for years to come.

And oh yes, thank you for not doing "Gee Whiz."

--- Alan Shutro


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