Even after all these years, the crime in question on Bettye LaVette's new album still riles her. "The Scene of the Crime" is a pointed reference to LaVette returning to Muscle Shoals, Ala., the fabled Southern city whose recording studios gave soul music many of its touchstones, most notably Aretha Franklin's string of late-'60s classics.
LaVette recorded in Muscle Shoals once, back in 1972, and she considered the album, "Child of the Seventies," a pivotal achievement. Too bad Atlantic Records, her label at the time, didn't agree and shelved the record and never released it in the United States. (It was finally released here last year on Rhino Handmade.)
But with "The Scene of the Crime," which is out today on Anti- Records, LaVette avenges that misstep with an album as lean, mean, and gritty as the cover image of someone behind a steering wheel, peering into the rearview mirror with windshield wipers in motion.
LaVette, in case you hadn't heard, was the comeback story of 2005. A mainstay on the club circuit but unknown to the masses, LaVette released "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" on Anti-. It turns out she was just clearing her throat with that celebrated album; on "Scene," she delivers on the promise that her best work lies ahead of her.
This time she's backed by Drive-By Truckers, a down-and-dirty Southern-rock band based in Athens, Ga. It all comes full circle: The group's leader, guitarist Patterson Hood, is the son of bassist David Hood, who co-owned Muscle Shoals Sound Studios back when LaVette first recorded there. Keyboardist Spooner Oldham, a Muscle Shoals stalwart, also plays on the album.
As with "I've Got My Own Hell," LaVette interprets other people's songs, but her palette and taste are vast and unexpected, from George Jones's "Choices" to Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Talking Old Soldiers." In a hardened rasp reminiscent of Tina Turner back in the days with Ike, LaVette grinds out the lyrics with a gut-wrenching intensity perfectly suited to the Truckers' aggressive rock instrumentation.
"I don't hear music," LaVette says from her home in New Jersey. "I hear words, and I want to position the words in a way that I can sing them. I don't like rehearsals, and I don't go into a studio to discover something."
You can hear what she's talking about on "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces," one of Willie Nelson's after-hours country ballads. The accompaniment is so faint it's nearly vaporous, with a soft brush of drums tapping out a semblance of a beat. For the most part, the band stays out of her way.
And "Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)," which LaVette co-wrote with Hood, is her incredible life story concentrated into 4 1/2 minutes. "All my friends on the Grammy shows/ I was stuck in Detroit trying to open doors/ Record deals kept falling apart/ One with Atlantic nearly broke my heart," she sings, again referring to "Child of the Seventies."
"Because I was never successful and never had a big hit, I've had to a do a lot of different things in my career," she says. "So I think it's good for these guys to play something differently and broaden their approach. Because let me tell you: I'm as broad as I'm going to get."