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The songs on 'Blackbirds' are given Bettye LaVette?s characteristic treatment / SOUL HOUSE

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Bettye LaVette has cemented her reputation as a raw, emotional interpreter of other people's material. With I've Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005) she covered the likes of Fiona Apple and Joan Armatrading; in 2010 she tackled Pink Floyd, The Who, and the Rolling Stones with Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook; and the Grammy-nominated Things Have Changed (2018) drew entirely from the songbook of Bob Dylan.

Blackbirds is largely an homage to the great Black women of jazz and blues, including Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, and Dinah Washington. "These women are the first Black women singers I heard," LaVette said in an interview with The New York Times. "Knowing what all these women went through, I can find myself in each of the songs because I'm a black bird too." There are two outliers: the dirgey ‘One More Song', written and first recorded by Leonard Cohen's collaborator Sharon Robinson, and a cover of The Beatles' ‘Blackbird', which Paul McCartney later clarified was about the strength of Black women in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.

The songs are given LaVette's characteristic treatment. She takes the original cadence and melody of the piece and often discards it, or at least embellishes it heavily. Her quartet – producer-drummer Steve Jordan, keyboardist Leon Pendarvis, guitarist Smokey Hormel, and bassist Tom Barney – deliver restrained, angular arrangements. Jordan's production does well to centre LaVette. Her ravaged, earthy voice is the prime mover here. You can hear the five decades of hustle, disappointment, and despair with each syllable. One listens to the album and can imagine LaVette perched on a stool in a smoky jazz club illuminated by a single spotlight.