Sheryl Crow and "great songwriter" are words that rarely, if ever, appear in the same paragraph and for good reason. Consider the chorus of her latest hit, "Good is Good": "And every time you hear the rolling thunder/You turn around before the lightning strikes/And does it ever make you stop and wonder/If all your good times pass you by." Could it be that Crow wants her protagonist to take more chances in life? Yeah, that'd be it. Because, with lyrics this prosaic, how could it be taken to mean anything else? As the former Mizzou sorority girl ripens into middle age, she continues to flatline lyrically.
But somehow it doesn't matter. First there's Crow herself: Is there a 43-year-old on earth who looks better? Purists who claim this has nothing to do with the merits of a song like "Good is Good" must stand corrected. What makes "Good is Good" so, ahem, good is the super-smoking-hot vision of Crow singing it, not to mention a soaring recurrent guitar riff and Crow adroitly plying the upper reaches of her raspy range. Most rock stars are hot because they can sing. Crow is hot because she's hot; that she has a respectable set of pipes makes her pure gold. All of which make Crow's songwriting deficiencies an afterthought. As Robert Townsend once proffered, you don't throw away a Rolls Royce 'cause it's got a dent. Mike Seely
For Bettye LaVette, St. Louis conjures some fond memories. "Most of my records have always sold well there," says the veteran soul singer, a Muskegon, Michigan, native who cut her first singles in Detroit back in the early '60s. More recently, when LaVette's career hit a slow patch in the 1990s, a local gig helped her break into the blues-festival circuit, which has fueled her current career resurgence.
"I was just in a mire there in Detroit all records having flopped, no agent, no manager," she recalls. But then a mutual friend put her in touch with the St. Louis Blues Society, the organization that produced the 1997 Blues Heritage Festival. Though the event was poorly attended, LaVette's St. Louis concert helped her get a couple of bookings at other blues festivals, which helped bring her to the attention of her current management and label. "So, I always say that it started in St. Louis," she says.
Now that resurgence is turning into full-fledged buzz, thanks to her incendiary new CD, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. Produced by singer-songwriter Joe Henry, whose work with Solomon Burke helped reinvigorate the legendary soul man's career, Raise is composed entirely of tunes by female songwriters, selected by LaVette for their performance possibilities.
"What happens is that I don't think in terms of how something will sound on the radio. Shit, I haven't had a record played on the radio in 30 years," she laughs. "I only think in terms of my show. So when I choose the tunes to record, I choose them because I can see how they'll fit in my show, and I can see myself singing them. I'll think of how I'll be walking, how I'll hold my head, my hands, the whole thing."
Drawn from writers including Dolly Parton, Fiona Apple, Joan Armatrading and Aimee Mann, none of the songs would normally be considered soul music. But LaVette's raw, throaty rasp transforms them, turning Parton's "Little Sparrow" into an anthem of defiance and Dar Williams' "Joy" into a near-apocalyptic travelogue chronicling her own real-life journey.
Though she had some minor hits in the 1960s, until now LaVette has been known more to critics and collectors than to the general public. A 1972 album for Atlantic was shelved, and it took until 1982 for LaVette to issue her first full-length recording. She continued to perform and cut occasional singles, and when a French record company licensed her "lost" Atlantic album for release in 2000, LaVette was ready for re-discovery. A subsequent live album and a studio effort with Robert Cray's producer followed, setting the stage for her critically acclaimed new CD.
With the success of Raise, LaVette sees all the extra-musical elements finally coming together. "It's a matter of having everything I need at this point," she says. "You know how this shit works, honey. If they had taken any of the other ones I did and put this kind of interest and money into it, maybe it wouldn't have happened like this is happening, but something would have happened." Dean C. Minderman
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