Bettye LaVette’s voice has the kind of earthy urgency that can’t be faked or taught. She developed that sound by spending more than four decades on the soul/blues circuit, making any number of great singles that seldom received decent distribution or radio airplay. Yet LaVette has never wavered, nor has she let career disappointments affect her powerful singing. She’s a magnificent soul vocalist, equally gifted at heartbreak sagas, tribute pieces and ironic narratives. While many fans thought her 1982 Motown LP Tell Me a Lie would be the session that earned LaVette some deserved international acclaim, perhaps it will be her newest album, A Woman Like Me (Blues Express), that puts her over the top.
Producer Dennis Walker, whose previous clients include Robert Cray and B.B. King, frames LaVette’s fiery vocals with the stinging guitar licks of either Alan Miriktani or Mike Turner. There are also stirring horn lines, as well as strong soloing from saxophonist Tom Peterson, whose darting tenor response to LaVette’s cries and biting commentary on “Salt on My Wounds” ranks as the disc’s highlight. LaVette is alternately defiant on the title cut, angry on “Serves Him Right” and “When a Woman’s Had Enough,” and alluring on “Thinkin’ About You” and “Close as I’ll Get to Heaven.” With longtime music director Rudy Robinson, who died shortly before this disc was released, inserting lush phrases and delicate piano lines underneath, LaVette’s stirring vocals present every conceivable emotion except self-pity. A Woman Like Me won’t get any Billboard chart listings with a bullet, but it’s a contemporary soul/blues masterpiece and unquestionably LaVette’s finest album to date.
The Smashing Pumpkins made their reputation (and their millions) by fusing the ambition of prog-rock, the melancholy of post-punk and the guitar fetishism of heavy metal and shoegazer dreampop. At his best, leader Billy Corgan turned sour moods and self-aggrandizement into shiny little pleasures; at his worst, he made the Pumpkins sound like whiny soreheads. Corgan starts fresh with his new band, Zwan, whose debut album Mary Star of the Sea (Martha’s Music/Reprise) makes an immediately bright impression, from its rainbow-adorned cover art to the chipper, “power of music” album-opener, “Lyric.”
Much of Mary takes music itself as a recurring themeCorgan sings “Baby Let’s Rock!” and “Heartsong” with sincere pleasure, and he nips from the classic-rock lyric pool on “Declarations of Faith,” insisting to the object of the song that “Maybe we were born to run / Forever” and “Maybe we were born to come / Together.” Zwan’s debut falters a bit toward the end, perhaps because Corgan doesn’t let his new project become the “band” he claims it to be. Guitarist Matt Sweeney (Chavez) and guitarist/bassist David Pajo (Slint/Tortoise/Papa M) don’t bring much of their respective styles to bear on the record, but Mary Star of the Sea is still a big, melodic rock album with great guitar sounds, and that’s enough to forgive Corgan’s continued indulgence of shameless mythopoetics (as on the interminable 14-minute title track). Rock doesn’t get much more blissful than the punchy, Cure-meets-Dinosaur ditty “El Sol,” or the album’s first single “Honestly,” a rolling up-tempo ballad that heads for the stratosphere in its final minute.
Nick Cave has made a good living out of feeling bad. His music has always stared into the abyss, but beginning with 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, Cave drew a bead on his own demons. Where that record may have suffered from self-indulgence (and sparse participation from Cave’s band, The Bad Seeds), his latest, Nocturama (Anti), strikes a balance between the soul-searching piano dirges and ominous rave-ups that are his stock-in-trade. “He Wants You” features a pretty piano melody and yearning vocal, its composition tight and restrained. “Dead Man in My Bed” is a frantic and noisy organ-driven rocker, while “Still in Love” is as empty as a ghost town; the latter’s space and Cave’s deep, forlorn voice are enough to send chills down your spine. “Babe I’m on Fire” recalls Cave and The Bad Seeds’ early days, as well as his former band, The Birthday Party. Its versea blues figurerepeats itself to the bounds of patience, but over the track’s nine-plus minutes, it gathers so much menace, you wonder how the band could ever end it; the resulting silence, when they do, is even creepier.
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