New York City is traditionally outside of the borders of Southern rock, mostly, if not exclusively, for reasons having to do with the Mason-Dixon line. But Bette Smith, the pride of Brooklyn, shows that the Big Apple is more than the punk-soaked legacy of CBGBs on The Good, the Bad and the Bette, her version of Southern rock, featuring a generous helping of blues and soul.
Smith’s voice is pure New York grit, equal parts Rod Steward and Mavis Staples. You can imagine hearing it calling you out for cutting ahead in a coffee, or, as we say here, cawfee, line. But on these ten tracks, Smith puts her instrument to better use, powering the songs with an emotional depth and intensity that hooks you from the moment you hear them. This isn’t American Idol style overperforming, but rather a high-energy artist pushing herself. And it’s not generic Southern rock that leans a little too hard on a boogie beat and lots of guitar solos, but rather the Platonic ideal that seamlessly fuses the best of the south into perfect songs.
For instance, “Human” has a huge groove, an infectiously poppy chorus and a wah-wah’d guitar that runs down the middle of the song. The bassline, by Matt Patton of the Drive-By Truckers (who also co-produced the album), is funky and Smith’s voice soars through the song giving it a weight that wouldn’t be there with a generic, Southern-accented male singer. The openness of the performance makes the song feel spiritual, which is unsurprising given that Smith grew up in a religious home, the daughter of a choir director. Smith also has other spots where she shows her love of gospel. “Signs and Wonders” has a Staples energy but rambles along like a country tune. Featuring horns, plus guitar from Luther Dickinson, it also has a church-like feel, especially when the backup singers come in, sounding like the congregation. And “I’m a Sinner” is 60s goth surf punk, the hardest rocking song on the album, Smith confessing over clattering organ and guitars.
Smith has a few interesting covers, too. She takes on Eddie Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love,” keeping it simple and old-fashioned. And her cover of the Dexateens’ “Pine Belt Blues” is propulsive, both a march and blues, with lush background vocals giving the tune a Band sound. With Smith writing only three of the album’s songs, her choice and execution of covers provides interesting insights into her thought process as an artist. And the emphasis is on thought, as she’s thoughtful, instantly recognizing the heart of a song and maintaining those elements, even as she adds her own distinctive stamp to each track. Smith has a feel for the type of rock and roll that came from and continues to come from, the American south. It’s the kind of music that arises from blues and gospel and that we now know can also be born in Brooklyn.
The Review: 9/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Signs and Wonders
– I’m a Sinner
– Pine Belt Blues
– Everybody Needs Love
The Big Hit
Review by Steven Ovadia