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Five stars for Bettye LaVette's "Blackbirds"

Goldmine reviewer Mike Greenblatt calls Bettye LaVette's "Blackbirds" the album of the year.
Bettye Lavette Blackbirds-hi

Bettye Lavette

Verve (CD, LP)

5 stars

It’s pretty obvious that this is the album of the year. Has any artist ever had such a late-career surge of one great album after another? With five gems in the last 10 years, Lavette, 74, with her craggy one-of-a-kind voice that has matured into a sophisticated, soulful strong instrument, has stood head-and-shoulders above almost anyone else of her generation male or female. 

Now she’s given proper due to those who preceded her with a tantalizing brew of material that’s just smokey and romantic enough to be its own genre of Black Americana: wistful, edgy and absolutely brilliant all at the same time. She’s also a thief, having done stole “Strange Fruit” from Billie Holiday, “I Hold No Grudge” from Nina Simone, “Drinking Again” from Dinah Washington, “Book Of Lies” from Ruth Brown and even “Blackbird” from Paul McCartney wherein Paul’s ode to civil rights in America—which sounds today oddly quaint—takes on volumes of new meaning as she personalizes it, feels its implications while living and breathing it. You can hear the tear in her voice. It ain’t quaint anymore. 

She owns these songs now. All of them. They’re hers. The originals all sound stiff by comparison. Her vocals fill the sparse mix with emotion, surprise, anger and an overwhelming sense of anguish that borders on desperation. It’s the kind of voice that crawls under your skin, demanding attention. That’s called art.

—Mike Greenblatt 

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