Robert Christgau on Bettye LaVette's Dylan Covers and Wussy's Spacey Return
The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews LaVette's 'Things Have Changed' as well as Wussy's 'Getting Better' and 'What Heaven Is Like.'
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To find out more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed (Verve) After her 2003 rebranding with minimalist producer-songwriter Dennis Walker, soul belter turned art singer LaVette got melodramatic on our ass, as old soul belters will. So neither the Brit-rock covers of 2010's Interpretations nor the Grammy fodder of 2015's Worthy speaks for itself with anything approaching the unforced impact of this highly uncanonical Dylan album. Beyond a dubious "It Ain't Me Babe" and a startlingly rearranged "Times They Are A-Changin'," LaVette's picks are obscure, half of them '80s titles left off both of the compilations since concocted to salvage his lost decade. And "interpretations" they're not. Instead LaVette invents a truly new Dylan—a Dylan who's an African-Ameican woman. Sure this Dylan has "soul"—reservoirs of empathy and spiritual mojo the Dylan we know could only gesture at, cut with a deep seam of the sardonic skepticism that never leaves him alone and finished off with a range, texture, and definition beyond the capabilities of his aging larynx. But the invention goes deeper than that. With R&B master drummer Steve Jordan overseeing an unfailing groove, LaVette messes with the songs at will, not just by changing genders as storylines require—"Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" is so different addressed to a man—and introducing the terms "bullshit" and "fucked up" to Dylan's lexicon, but by swapping and omitting stanzas and updating historical references, Annie Oakley and Belle Starr to Otis Redding and Bruno Mars. The closing "Going, Going Gone," which has no real place on 1973's Planet Waves, darkens the album's political through-line. And in the boldest stroke of all, "Mama, You Been on My Mind" addresses not some dumped old lady but this Dylan's mother. LaVette's mother too, sounds like. A
Wussy: Getting Better (Shake It) The Queen City Five begin this Record Store Day EP with a reading of the underappreciated Beatles classic in which Lisa Walker—her voice always calm, sometimes sweet, occasionally detached—takes Paul's positive-thinking lead, John's background harmonies, and also John's shocking "I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved" bridge. Then follow three winners from the Cincinnati songbook and the insufficiently legendary 2013 Berneice Huff mixtape—Jenny Mae's "Runaway," also all Lisa, followed by Chuck Cleaver's pensive take on the Seedy Seeds' "Nomenclature" and pained remake of the Afghan Whigs' punky old college-radio hit "Retard" with Lisa adding screamo to the refrain. Production is Record Store Day basic. But that's a good thing on a release that reminds us where Wussy comes from and can return whenever the mood strikes them, and also how deep their musical sagacity goes. A
Wussy: What Heaven Is Like (Shake It) I was struck when the recently revived shoegaze "genre" came up in discussions of Wussy's seventh official album, because it evoked the only track of theirs I've ever disliked: the ethereal remake of the 2008 rock-with-xylophone?? EP track "Skip," where Lisa's deepened soprano whispers a lyric too fuzzy for a band whose turns of phrase pack colloquial bite even when literal meanings are gummy. The guitars tend more immersive than the echoing arena-rock of Attica! and Forever Sounds, proving that Yo La Tengo isn't the only great band addressing politics too painful to ignore by getting weirder. In the end, the intent is neither ambient nor calming, just dreamier than I'd prefer. So I'm glad I have no trouble attaching social significance to an opener that begins "Don't you wish you could have been an astronaut / Back when astronauts had more appeal," or to Chuck's pure-punk cover "There's Aliens in Our Midst." For we who believe heaven means achieving maximum humanity on the only planet we'll ever know, that's the way it feels now. A MINUS
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