Betty Lavette’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook

6 out 10: Professional covers from a professional soul singer

Most every black performer of the 60s and 70s covered a song made famous by someone white at one stage or another, and, with the exception of Nina Simone, most every black performer sounded awkward singing songs that were unsuited to their voices. So many missteps in the past make an album of British rock songs sung by the seasoned soul singer Bettye Lavette seem positively ghastly, but, to her credit, Lavette makes every one of these songs her own.

Lavette had never heard any of the original versions of the songs on Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook before recording them, not even I Wish You Were Here, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood or Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me. Without years of admiration weighing her down, Lavette has been able to interpret these songs freely, transforming each and every one of these relatively traditional rock songs into prime soul and funk.

Such free turns from the originals are always of interest, but interest soon wanes as one discovers that many of the very elements that made these songs great are lost in the process. On The Beatles’ The Word, there’s no innocent glee; on The Rolling Stones’ Salt of the Earth, there’s no cracked, common-man singing that evokes working-class solidarity. Instead, everything is turned over to the soul-101 treadmill, Lavette’s exceptional rasp nonetheless a genre cliche.

Lavette’s approach does, however, work well on songs that have dated poorly. Shorn of their awful production, Led Zeppelin’s All My Love and George Harrison’s Isn’t It A Pity shimmer more brightly with their freshly-applied soul sheen. Overall, though, while Lavette reconfirms her status as a true soul professional, she fails to make any great impression despite how adeptly she interprets material made in a foreign style.

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