Bettye LaVette’s The Scene of the Crime displays the anxiety of influence that afflicts any number of modern soul records. But where Candi Staton sounded pious on last year’s His Hands, and Howard Tate abstracted on the jazzy A Portrait of Howard, LaVette sings Scene as if she’s been backed into a corner and relishes the sensation. In fact, she’s spent most of her 45-year career against the wall, from her journeywoman days on such small labels as Calla and Silver Fox to the dark-night-of-the-soul singer documented on Child of the Seventies, made in 1972 for Atlantic and mysteriously unreleased for three decades. Scene finds LaVette returning to Muscle Shoals, where she cut that Atlantic shot—this time she gets to pick the material and frighten the Drive-By Truckers, who accompany her like children feeling for a motel-room light switch.
A haughty interpreter with actorly instincts, LaVette does right by Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces,” and turns Eddie Hinton’s “I Still Want to Be Your Baby (Take Me Like I Am)” into a master class on phrasing. She doesn’t hide her drinking, her lust, or her jealousy, and just for kicks affects vulnerability on Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Talking Old Soldiers.” Bellying up to the bar, she sings, “I know how it feels to grow old.” And on her own “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette),” she substitutes autobiographical bravado for songwriterly anxiety and makes it sound natural.