Bettye LaVette sings “Lazy (and I Know It),” from her new album LaVette!, like she’s telling a joke and just realized it’s not funny. “One time I had a day job,” she declares over a bluesy, clock-watching crawl. She draws out those syllables into a languid lament, then switches to comical, matter-of-fact sing-speaking for the next line: “It didn’t thrill me.” It’s a funny yet grave moment, acknowledging the bizarreness of one of the finest song interpreters of the era being confined to a cubicle all day, while reminding you that there’s a real-life danger in dwindling away behind a desk. “Day job for three months, coast for nine,” she strategizes. “Catch me in a nightclub at closing time.”

The song was written by Randall Bramblett, a member of Chuck Leavell’s Georgia fusion group Sea Level as well as a celebrated sideman with Bonnie Raitt, Gregg Allman, and Widespread Panic. In the liner notes for LaVette!, her new album of Bramblett covers, she declares him to be “the best writer that I have heard in the last 30 years.” It’s obvious that she sees him as a kindred soul: a born artist who’s not cut out for day jobs, 401(k) plans, corporate ladders, or anything else that might get in the way of making music all day. These songs speak to the same kind of obsession that motivated LaVette after Atlantic Records dumped her in the 1970s and before she cemented a comeback in the 2000s. “I ain’t got no plan B,” she sings on the breezily funky “Plan B,” an anthem for anyone who doesn’t have a fallback. “Rhythm and blues in the back of my mind/Champagne and a joint would do me just fine.”

While LaVette has recorded several albums devoted to one scene or one artist, LaVette! is different. On 2010’s Interpretations: the British Rock Songbook and her insightful 2018 Bob Dylan collection Things Have Changed, there was a thrill in hearing her remake iconic songs and bend them to her will. Those albums allowed you to gauge and appreciate how completely she could rearrange familiar patterns, how she could raise new questions and introduce new implications, and how she could get away with rewriting Dylan’s lyrics.

Bramblett is no Dylan, no Who, and no Elton John, which means his songs won’t be as familiar to listeners as “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Love, Reign O’er Me” are. So on LaVette!, there’s no sense of her reinventing a popular song or challenging our perception of a popular artist. That’s no criticism: This is her loosest and most daring album in years, an affectionate tribute to an underappreciated figure that could easily be renamed Bramblett! In LaVette’s hands, he emerges as a deft stylist who mixes various strains of Southern music with slyly evocative turns of phrase, self-denigrating humor, and big questions about existence and spirituality.

She locates an absurdism running through his lyrics, darker notes of chagrin and suspicion. On the manically percolating “Hard to Be a Human,” LaVette wonders if the Big Man Upstairs might be responsible for our failures and foibles: “First He made the mountains, then He filled up the seas,” she sings, her delivery growing more sardonic with every word. “But He lost His concentration when He started working on you and me.”

As though arguing for Bramblett’s impact and importance, LaVette and drummer, producer, and musical director Steve Jordan assembled a band of big names for this album. Steve Winwood and Hi Rhythm Section veteran Rev. Charles Hodges both play the Hammond B3 organ, pianist Jon Batiste turns “Mess About It” inside out with a double-time piano solo, and jazz bassist Pino Palladino holds everything together with Jordan on drums. Together, this devises a palette that draws from country and blues, gospel and rock, funk and jazz, and folk and swamp, subtly mirroring the pan-Southern sound that Bramblett has been refining for decades now.

Larry Campbell’s pedal steel adds a country stateliness to the breakup song “I’m Not Gonna Waste My Love,” as though weeping on LaVette’s behalf, while John Mayer makes himself useful by channeling Stax guitarist Steve Cropper on “In the Meantime,” a ballad of regret and resilience that’s one of the album’s saddest songs. “I’m dreamin’ dreams of my used-to-be,” LaVette sings, as though reeling back in time to her years in the wilderness, “Tellin’ everybody I’ll be just fine.” While she has a reputation for making familiar songs sound utterly new, here she finds a way to make Bramblett’s songs tell her story, to let them speak for her. She rewrites his songs simply by singing them.

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Bettye LaVette: LaVette!