CD: 10 Songs, 36:41 Minutes
Styles: Jazz-and-Soul-Influenced Blues
As a society and a world, we love our comparisons. We not only ask who’s better than whom, but also who is similar to whom. It’s the reason why the acronym RIYL (Recommended If You Like) is such a thing on the Internet. In her promotional materials, NYC’s Bette Smith has been compared to Betty Davis, Betty Wright, Lauryn Hill, Bessie Smith, and, of course, Etta James. We all need a baseline to go on when we discover new artists – “who do they sound like?” – but this tactic is overused. If everything tastes like chicken, then what, exactly, does the proverbial chicken taste like?
In a word, Bette Smith’s voice is particular to herself and herself alone. It has a glinting, almost girlish edge that adds a touch of the unusual to the usual vibrato and belted notes. This joyful Jetlagger sounds like she’s having a ball, even in the midst of dealing with a “Manchild” and enduring the “Shackle & Chain” of too much romantic closeness. On four covers and six originals that should climb the Billboard charts in no time, she and some of Fat Possum Records’ best musicians show that they’re one of a kind. Sometimes it’s hard to understand their lyrics, but their spirit (along with the Holy Spirit) comes through loud and clear.
Bette Smith grew up in the rough Bedford-Stuyvestant neighborhood of NYC, where she sang gospel, soul and blues.
Accompanying her as she sings lead vocals are Jimbo Mathus on guitars, keyboards, and background vocals; Bronson Tew on drums and background vocals; Matt Patton on bass and background vocals; Scott “Pako” Goolsby on second guitar; Starlin Browning on guitar for “I Found Love”; Jamison Hollister on violin; Marc Franklin and Kirk Smothers on horns, and Susan Marshall on additional background vocals. (Sometimes Bette harmonizes with herself, and Ms. Marshall’s vocals team up with hers in this situation.)
The following three selections are some of the best of soul blues that this year has to offer.
Track 01: “I Will Feed You” – The first thing that will jump out at listeners, and send shivers down their spines, is this song’s intro. A chorus of wailing voices climbs the scale, slowly and mournfully, as if grieving the loss of a loved one. “Whatever you want, whatever you need, the love that you want, I will feed you,” Bette informs her paramour, sounding coquettish and sincere at the same time. Jimbo Mathus’ lead guitar soars, too, robust and strong as an eagle.
Track 03: “I Found Love” – I found a sticker on the front of this CD that suggested lucky number three as one of its premiere offerings. A cover from the band Lone Justice, starring Steven Van Zandt, it speeds along like a bullet train, hard-driving and exhilarating. Dig those drums by Bronson Tew – not everyone can hold that pace or keep the energy constantly high-octane. The powerhouse background vocals have great harmony and tempo, all voices perfectly equalized.
Track 08: “Moaning Bench” – We all need to repent of our reckless, wanton ways sometimes, but some people have no concept of this concept. “Your mama was a [stripper] dancer, and your daddy was a guitar man. You grew up in the back of a bar,” Bette tells the target of this lecture. “Well, the bloom has left the rose, and the rose is falling off of the vine.” Who, specifically, is she talking about? “You a shameless wench! Go down…on the moaning bench!” Baptist churches used to have them, and this song’s subject is long due for a visit.
Who does Bette Smith sound like? Bette Smith, of course: a jubilant Jetlagger!