“I’m trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others,” Bettye LaVette sings with typically poised but pointed drama at the core of her new “Things Have Changed” album. “But, oh, mother, things ain't going well.”
Turbulence and conflict come naturally with LaVette’s schooled singing. Love and comfort do, too. But nothing typifies the ongoing soul renaissance of the 72-year-old vocalist as a song full of rapturous unrest. On “Things Have Changed,” she has found a dozen of them, all penned by Bob Dylan.
Let’s get this tired expectation out of the way first. “Things Have Changed” isn’t some random jukebox tribute, a “LaVette Sings Dylan” enterprise that lets her worldly soul sound wash over a set of familiar hits by the Nobel prize winning songsmith. “Things Have Changed” is instead an intelligent and insightful interpretation of music that travels deep to unexpected reaches of Dylan’s more than 50 year catalog.
How deep, you ask? Well, try works from such mid-to-late career albums as “Planet Waves,” “Infidels” and “Modern Times.” Try two songs from the forgotten 1985 relic “Empire Burlesque.” And when the focus shifts to comparatively popular albums (“Slow Train Training,” “Oh Mercy”), the picks are far from obvious.
In fact, outside of a big beat invention of the record’s Oscar-winning title tune (from the 2000 Michael Douglas movie “The Wonder Boys”), a sly soul revision of “It Ain’t Me Babe” and a fascinating bayou-drenched take on “The Times They Are-A-Changin’” that sounds like Tina Turner backed by Creedence Clearwater Revival while tossing a golden slice of social activism onto the dance floor, the Dylan hit parade bypasses “Things Have Changed.”
But the left turns that remain fuel considerable and often ominous fun. “Political World” (from “Oh Mercy”), for instance, is taken at about half the pace of Dylan’s shuffling original. LaVette, producer and drummer Steve Jordan and guitar guest Keith Richards also drench the revision in early ’70s funk (the War classic “Slippin’ into Darkness” comes to mind) without losing sight of the tune’s underlying chaos. You can all but see LaVette wringing her hands and she seethes along with the song’s desolate, desperate intro to a world where “love has no place.”
But there is so much more, like the torchy soul LaVette injects into the majestic “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” (the finale tune from “Infidels”). Here, she ignites one of Dylan’s most potently remorseful lyrics as if lighting a fuse (“Maybe I'd have done some good in the world, instead of burning every bridge I crossed”).
The quietly stoic “Planet Waves” gem “Going Going Gone” ends the album with an oddly faithful approximation of Dylan’s blueprint version. It’s slow and regally deflating, but, as you might suspect, there is also a bit of an upgrade in the vocal department.