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Bettye Lavette 

I've Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti/Epitaph)

At 59, Bettye Lavette has gone under the radar for too long. She's recorded for Atco, Epic, Motown, and a host of smaller labels. She's flirted with the charts. She's always been soulful. And she's just released one of the best albums of the year.

Crafted by the team responsible for Don't Give Up on Me, Solomon Burke's 2002 comeback album, My Own Hell features work by female writers exclusively, spanning Lucinda Williams, Fiona Apple, Joan Armatrading, and Dolly Parton. Lavette makes all the material her own.

Take the way the Detroit native injects sorrow and defiance into Parton's "Little Sparrow," one of the most striking of these 10 tunes. Sparked by guitar so lean it's like hearing water squeezed from a stone, Lavette rasps, coaxes, and commands, filling Parton's cautionary lyrics with unexpected soul. In Apple's "Sleep to Dream," Lavette croons over an eerie shuffle, suggesting that she's ready for action and no longer willing to be subordinate.

Another key element is the production. Not only has producer Joe Henry assembled a fabulous band -- Chris Bruce and Doyle Bramhall II are an indelible guitar blend -- he's also set Lavette in immaculately austere, inexorably swinging arrangements. May this great, gritty blues album bring Lavette the acclaim she's worked so hard to earn.

More by Carlo Wolff

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