LaVette's interpretive powers are sharper than ever, and aided by Joe Henry's strong yet understated co-production, it's clearly the best thing she's done since 2007's The Scene of the Crime, where she was backed by Drive-By Truckers. Built around a common theme of self-belief and turning quirky means into strengths, Worthy is often subdued but never dull; each song features a great turn of a phrase or a bit of vocal unpredictability.
And unlike her inconsistent Interpretations: Songs from the British Rock Songbook, this one matches LaVette with songs perfectly in line with her rough-hewn voice and emotional scope.
The range of material, from Mickey Newbury to the Amazing Rhythm Aces to Savoy Brown, is especially noteworthy. The title track, penned by Mary Gauthier and Beth Nielsen Chapman, is infused with the kind of confidence we all aspire to while delivering the message with a reflective wisdom on our personal ups and downs that says we didn't get to our levels of self-appreciation without struggles. I'm not hearing that in a lot of music today.
LaVette continues to triumph when covering three of the 1960s' greatest artists, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I saw "Wait" on the tracklist and thought that I wasn't looking forward to another Fab Four cover. Forget that; this is amazing. It's slowed down and full of tension, bringing the bite and weight of the song from one of Rubber Soul's minor gems to another level. I was ready to wince at line "I've been good" because while it might have fit the Beatles well in 1965, it wouldn't hold water here. But listen to how she handles it.
And just as she did with Dylan's "Everything Is Broken" a few years ago, "Unbelievable" captures confusion, disbelief and outrage. My favorite might be "Complicated," as LaVette is expertly suited to this piece from the Stones' most underrated album, Between the Buttons. It's unconventional, made crazier by Patrick Warren's organ playing, and taps into the side of Bettye LaVette that has been labeled "difficult" by the music industry. The fact that this instrument is even on the record at all is unusual; Ms. L. wrote in her autobiography that she didn't want an organ on any of her recordings because "it reminds me of a funeral." Thank heaven she's let that go. Worthy will surely be in my Top Ten when 2015 ends.