Reviews Zone

Bette Smith: The Good, The Bad And The Bette (Ruf Records) 25th September 2020



5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)



Raunchy, sassy, growling, raspy and sweet n’ soulful are just some of the commanding vocal ingredients that US artist Bette Smith throws into the recipe for her sizzling new album, “The Good, The Bad And The Bette”.

Vintage r&b, retro soul and rock – but very much on-trend and relevant to 2020 – is spread across this second album from the Brooklyn, New York artist.

Her debut “Jetlagger” dropped in 2017, and then an EP in 2018. This 10-track gem throws back to the likes of “Clean Up Woman” Betty Wright, who left us in May of this year, and jazz legend Miles Davis’ former wife Betty Davis and her “naaassssty” persona.

Daptone would be a fit for what Bette is doing musically. She’s not too far away from what the late Sharon Jones was doing, or even a more gritty version of Amy Winehouse’s Ronson-produced output.

Bette definitely has that growly delivery and uniqueness of Macy Gray. I think also of the great Bette Lavette when listening to these classy cuts, which trace elements of Ms Smith’s childhood in “rough” Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

The sound also connects to the gospel music she heard in church and the soul music on the corners. Drive-By Truckers’ Matt Patton and engineer/drummer Bronson Tew share the producer status.  Patton played bass on Smith’s debut album “Jetlagger,” which was produced by Jimbo Mathus, and the two found a kinship and a shared vision.

When Bette Smith called on Patton to help her make this new record, she briefed him that she was looking for a southern rock soul/Aretha Franklin/’I once was lost but now I’m found’ theme.

He enlisted North Mississippi Allstar guitarist Luther Dickinson for the track “Signs and Wonders” and fellow Drive By Truckers member Patterson Hood, for vocals on “Everybody Needs Love” on the  new album.

There’s a ballsy feel to the tracks, whether they be groove-soaked r&b or the more chilled ballads. They drilled into Bette’s “rock side”, and the gritty, rockin’ stuff Ike and Tina did in their steamy revue shows is nodded to heavily across this record.

Bette co-penned three cuts here, and was not afraid to reveal childhood trauma and the fractured relationship with her mother. All of the songs are about relationships, to reflect that part of the artist’s personality.

Sequenced to tell her story, from a present-day portrait of a strong woman to a flashback of her trauma and the emotional void she tried to fill with the party life. To go on to receive “a sign” and find healing. Her story as seen through the lens of a child, and then as an adult who still wears scars of childhood.

But the material also offers hope, strength and optimism going forward in life. Bette says: “Often people think I’m very confident and strong, but they don’t know I’ve faced many obstacles and traumas I fought hard to overcome.”

She says a final goodbye to her mother in the ballad “Whistle Stop,” written with Matt Patton, based on a dream that she had right before her mother died. In that dream, Bette was on the platform and her mother was at the last car on the train and was waving goodbye.

“The way I analysed the dream was that she didn’t say goodbye to me when she abandoned me the first time. But she did say goodbye the second time. I’m telling her, ‘come spend some time with me,’ because she haunts me. It’s unrequited love.”

There are songs here of love and gratitude, even a song about the lesson she was taught by her dog. Track six: “Human”, penned with Patton. She says she did not learn how to cope with stress because her mother showed her how she did it, by saying, “I gotta go. I’m outta here.”

Bette knows that doesn’t work in a long-term relationship. She says her dog taught her about trust and vulnerability.  She sings, “When your heart is in pain, I wanna be your human…” Her pooch Jeremiah gets in on the act in a photograph with his “human”, Bette, on the cover and inside cover of the CD.

The aggressive and horn-soaked “Fistful Of Dollars” takes no prisoners, and is a radio-ready cut. Strong opening gambit written by Lonnie Thomas Shields Jr. and Angelina McShane.

“Whistle Stop” really is a gorgeous vintage r&b ballad, with that smoky, raspy Macy Gray vocal thing going on. “I’m A Sinner” is a winner. Tyler Dawson Keith is the writer and it has a raw bluesy feel like early Stones stuff.

“I Felt It Too” has a grunged-up 1970s New York rock and roll feel, full of attitude – another Dawson-penned song – featuring Henry Westmoreland’s screeching Clarence Clemons-channelling sax’.

“Signs And Wonders” is the only track that didn’t do it for me. The Joplin-esque “Song For A Friend”, the third of the three Bette co-wrote with Patton, and “Pine Belt Blues”, work well. Especially the hard edged Faces and Humble Pie feel on the glorious ball kicking guitar parts on the latter song.

There is no note on the album sleeve or with the press release to tell me which guitarist plays on which track, apart from Luther Dickinson on one cut. So here’s the roll call of all the axe men across this record, as they all played a blinder, and the producers did a top job to make sure the guitars cut through like a real mutha!

So we have: Luther Dickinson, Jimbo Mathus, Craig Pratt, Jody Nelson, Bronson Tew, Matt Patton, Curtis J. Brewer and John McLeod. Take a bow.

Penultimate offering “Everybody Needs Love” utilises ensemble backup vocals, before the stripped back and emotion-drenched “Don’t Skip Out On Me” closes proceedings.

Bette’s vocal has no place to hide backed by acoustic guitar and some fleeting electric guitar brush strokes, and just a smattering of melancholic trumpet, before the drums and bass come in and pick things up later in the track.

It reminded me a bit of the approach the Stones had with “Wild Horses”, a track that could have been written for Ms Smith. She’s been wild and she’s been imprisoned by her years of torment, and the painful childhood memories of abandonment and yearning to be loved.

But now she runs free and is happy in her own skin. This set of songs is Bette’s healing process, part of her therapy. Catharsis.

She can trust me when I say I am pretty sure she will find lots of love from those lucky enough to find this rather magical piece of work. You Bette!


     By Simon Redley



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