BETTYE LAVETTE "The Scene of the Crime" (Anti-) 3 stars
The crime scene referred to in the title of the new recording by Detroit R&B vocalist Bettye LaVette just happens to be Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. It was there that this hard-luck artist recorded a superb album for Atlantic Records back in the early `70s. It was inexplicably shelved for decades, another rocky step in a career that until very recently has been filled with them.
LaVette finally got the major break she so long deserved in 2005 when she released the Joe Henry-produced "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise," a critically acclaimed work that finally got her some attention along with some better-paying, higher-profile gigs.
On "The Scene of the Crime," LaVette is backed up by a decidedly B-list band called the Drive-By Truckers, whose biggest claim to fame is "The Southern Rock Opera," based loosely on the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd. There is a bit of logic to the odd pairing, as David Hood, the father of Truckers guitarist Patterson Hood, played on those `70s sessions with LaVette.
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Easily shrugging off any of her backup band's inadequacies, LaVette digs into the material in her gritty, fiery way, delivering blistering versions of Eddie Hinton's "Still Want to Be Your Baby (Take Me As I Am)" and "You Don't Know Me At All," cowritten by the Eagles' Don Henley. Longtime Muscle Shoals studio keyboardist Spooner Oldham is a special guest and the secret weapon on "Scene of the Crime," adding just the right amounts of funky, swampy Wurlitzer piano to the proceedings and helping to loosen up the staid, slightly bland tracks laid down by the Drive-By Truckers.
Topping this collection is LaVette's showstopping rendition of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's heartrending ballad "Talking Old Soldiers," which obviously has deep personal meaning to her. Also outstanding is a rare track actually cowritten by LaVette, "Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)," an autobiographical account of the many obstacles she has faced in her 40-plus years of trying to make it in the music biz.
JONI MITCHELL "Shine" (Hear Music) 3 stars
After famously and caustically bidding farewell to the music industry she called a cesspool several years ago, Joni Mitchell has thankfully had a change of heart and released her first album of all new material in close to a decade. Make that almost all new, as "Shine" includes a rerecording of her old classic "Big Yellow Taxi."
After two contractual-obligation compilations of covers, "Both Sides Now" (2000) and "Travelogue" (2002), it's truly a special occasion to hear fresh songs from this musical visionary, even if they're mostly among the saddest and most pessimistic of her career.
Chief among Mitchell's concerns is the fate of planet Earth, and she vividly details its destruction by man in "This Place," "If I Had a Heart" and "Bad Dreams." As valid as her insights are, these songs are not particularly listener-friendly, and that's not just because of the bad news she's delivering. The often claustrophobic, sometimes dated arrangements feature only Mitchell on keyboards and vocals and little in the way of outside guests. The results sometimes sound more like lectures than songs.
But lifting "Shine" out of the doldrums and giving it some measure of desperately needed hope is the lengthy, cautiously optimistic title track, which is followed by something truly special for a closer. That happens to be "If," based on Rudyard Kipling's famous poem. Singing Kipling's inspirational words with calm determination and firm conviction, Mitchell makes this one magical by playing some gorgeous guitar and utilizing longtime collaborator Larry Klein on bass, Brian Blade on drums and Greg Leisz on pedal steel.
The second album released by Hear Music, co-owned by the Starbucks coffee chain, "Shine" will be available at traditional retailers as well as Starbucks, just like Paul McCartney's "Memory Almost Full."
KIM KASHKASHIAN AND ROBERT LEVIN "Asturiana - Songs from Spain and Argentina" (ECM) 4 stars
Old-fashioned beauty is a rare commodity these days, buried beneath an onslaught of mass-market prettiness on the one hand and postmodern irony on the other. But violist Kim Kashkashian and pianist Robert Levin tap into such a sincere and delirious expression of lyricism in these Spanish and Argentinian songs that the beauty of the music almost comes as a shock.
Part of the credit goes to the material, savvy transcriptions of vocal pieces by Manuel de Falla, Enrique Granados, Alberto Ginastera, Carlos Guastavino and others rooted in the brooding cry of folk music. But these are special performances, with Kashkashian's burnished tone, judicious vibrato and subtle phrasing creating an intimate and conversational voice and Levin's piano deepening the impact.