In a concert last month at Hollywood's Hotel Cafe, the buzzy English singer Paloma Faith crouched down near the floor to sing "Let Me Down Easy." It's a tough-love song associated with a number of hardy soul-music veterans, including Bettye LaVette and the late Etta James, and Faith was doing what she could (despite her youth and a seriously movement-constricting dress) to channel some of their gravitas.
LaVette does some crouching of her own on "Thankful N' Thoughtful," a powerful new covers album that finds the 66-year-old R&B singer tapping into the desperation of tunes like Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and "Everything Is Broken" by Bob Dylan. She's not borrowing those songwriters' seriousness. Now in her 50th year of performing, LaVette has no shortage of experience to draw upon, including years of struggle to make a name for herself following an early split from Atlantic Records.
But throughout "Thankful N' Thoughtful," LaVette — who's scheduled to appear Thursday night at the Troubadour — seems determined to isolate the basic character of the material. She takes these songs down to street level, stripping them of everything inessential in order to find out what they have to say about life or love or, in a deep-blues rendition of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," the oddly distinct pleasure of losing one's mind.
Rickie Lee Jones utilizes a somewhat similar approach on her new covers album, "The Devil You Know," which also contains a vintage Young selection ("Only Love Can Break Your Heart") along with songs by Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones. Working with the folk-rock singer-songwriter Ben Harper, Jones pares away anything that might be considered gloss. Her skeletal "Sympathy for the Devil," with a barely there guitar line, is a model of spooky minimalism, and like LaVette she makes no attempt to conceal the age in her voice. Singing "The Weight" by the Band, Jones definitely sounds as though Fanny put the load right on her.
Yet where LaVette uncovers heaviness, Jones — who plays the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Saturday — ends up with something almost lighter than air (turns out Fanny's load ain't so bad). "The Devil You Know" is exceedingly pretty, as is a ghostly rendition of the traditional folk song "St. James Infirmary," which is about withering away in a hospital from the effects of a venereal disease. Jones is confronting life-and-death issues, but she's letting you down easy, too.
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