Smith, Bette – Jetlagger – New LP
released September 29, 2017
Bette Smith - Vocals
Jimbo Mathus - Guitars, Keyboards & Background Vocals
Bronson Tew - Drums & Background Vocals
Matt Patton - Bass & Background Vocals
Scott “Pako” - Goolsby 2nd Guitar
Starlin Browning - Guitar on “I Found Love” Jamison Hollister Violin
Marc Franklin & Kirk Smothers - Horns
Bette SMith + Susan Marshall - Background Vocals
Produced by Jimbo Mathus
Recorded by Bronson Tew @ Dial Back Sound (Water Valley, MS)
Horn and Vocal Overdubs @ Delta-Sonic Sound (Memphis, TN)
“I will feed you” mixed by Clay Jones
Assistant Engineer Starlin Browning
mastered by Clay Jones @ Pete's Room
Photography Shervin Lainez
Package Design Kerri Mahoney
1. I Will Feed You
3. I Found Love
4. Flying Sweet Angel of Joy
6. Dirty Hustlin’
7. Shackle & Chain
8. Moaning Bench
9. Do Your Thing
10. City in the Sky
Born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Bette Smith reconnected with her musical roots in Memphis and Mississippi – and fulfilled a promise to her late brother in the process. Recording her debut full-length album in Mississippi brought her to the roots of the gospel she sang in the church and the soul music she heard on the block on hot summer nights music growing up on the corner of Nostrand and Fulton. The powerful ‘Jetlagger’ comes out September 29 on Big Legal Mess, a Fat Possum subsidiary. “The south came to me and grabbed me and pulled me down there. The southern migration came up and got me. My neighbors in Bed-Stuy influenced me,” she says.
She recalls that Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn was a very different place when she was growing up. “It was rough back then!,” she exclaims. “There was lots of gang activity. One gang came after my brother and my dad came out with a lead pipe to protect him. It was really hairy. My older brother Junior protected me from all of that. He would intimidate all of the other guys.”
She owes even more to Junior. Several years ago, on his deathbed suffering from kidney failure, he made her promise not to give up on a career as a singer. Those last days of his, she sang while he tapped his foot on the hospital bed at Kings County Hospital. “I didn’t know how else to comfort him,” she recalls. He told her, “I want you to sing; don’t give up” and she’s kept that promise, playing gigs from One Penn Plaza in New York to the Boogie Woogie Festival in Brussels, Belgium, always wearing yellow on stage to honor him. “It’s all for Junior now,” she affirms.
Jimbo Mathus produced the album at Water Valley’s Dial Back Sound and sent roughs to Bruce Watson, who swiftly signed Smith on for a full-length. He’s become a secret weapon for Fat Possum and Big Legal Mess Records; in addition to being a solo artist and a founding member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mathus has also produced Shinyribs, Luther Dickinson, The Seratones, and played on records by Valerie June, Buddy Guy, and Elvis Costello. “You exceeded all expectations,” Mathus told her.
The trip was also Smith’s first to the deep south. She recalls, “It took me out of my comfort zone. I got lost in a swamp one time and kind of freaked out! I’m a quintessential city girl.”
Smith beams when talking about the sessions. “It was really wonderful. Everything was recorded live. I felt like I was Tina Turner and Etta James. I do well when I’m performing. It was a real performance that had never been captured before.” Anyone who’s ever seen her live knows how absorbed she gets on stage and these sessions put her in that same place. She continues, “There’s New York aggressiveness and passion. I get to a fever pitch. I’m gone. I’m not even there anymore. Something else takes over.”
Mathus dug deep into the Mississippi and Memphis soul bags, unearthing “Flying Sweet Angel of Joy” by Famous L. Renfroe, a song with which Smith particularly connected. “I believe in guardian angels. Jimbo picked up on that. I feel that I was giving voice for Famous. because he never really got a chance.” Mathus also picked Isaac Hayes’ “Do Your Thing,” which simmers with Memphis heat.
The raucous soul-rock of “Man Child,” the spare funk of “Shackles & Chains,” and Blaxsploitation soundtrack feel of “Durty Hustlin’” were all written or co-written by Mathus specifically for Smith. She gets rough, wrestling the title track to the ground; the song captures the late nights and lack of sleep inherent in a musician’s life. First-call Memphis horn players Marc Franklin (Robert Cray, Lucero and Kirk Smothers (Don Bryant, Melissa Etheridge, Cyndi Lauper, Buddy Guy) were summoned to complete the album’s sound.
‘Jetlagger’s’ closer, the Staples Singers’ “City In the Sky,” connected her back to Bed-Stuy. She remembers, “My father was a church choir director. I was singing since I was five years old. I take it to church. I just break out, start speaking in tongues.” She also heard gospel around the house every weekend. “My grandmother listened to nothing but gospel,” she recalls, citing Mahalia Jackson and Reverend James Cleveland. “Every Sunday morning, she would get up and put on these records while dressing and praising the Lord. The furniture was plastic-covered. After lunch, it was more gospel music,” she says. Bed-Stuy block parties would also have revivalist-style gospel acts. “I’m steeped in it!,” she adds. Though a Seventh Day Adventist as a child, Smith is now a member of the Church of God in Christ.
Despite being born and bred in Brooklyn it took a trip down to the dirty south for Bette Smith to find her sound – working with producer Jimbo Mathus and a live band, together they captured the exuberant energy of her vocal performances and recorded straight to tape. At first glance the cover suggests this may be simple retro soul in the vein of much missed Sharon Jones, but Jetlagger also blends rock and roll, blues, psychedelia, gospel and funk into its thrilling mix.
Much has been written about the strength of Smith’s voice and this is evident on the opening song I Will Feed You, where she sounds like she’s ready to devour the whole damn world. Yet there’s a vulnerable side displayed here too, as Smith wrote this one after a break up. Be happy you’re free/ my friends say to me / it’s a dark victory she sings, not ready to give up her love.
The title track has a bluesy feel to it – she might feel jetlagged but everything about this song is high voltage. So too is the brilliant Manchild, which sounds like a roar of feminist victory that Tina Turner would be proud of.
I’ve always adored Maria McKee and Bette covers one of her Lone Justice tunes, I Found Love, with blistering effect. Some of that band’s magic was lost in 80s overproduction so it’s fantastic to hear this played like a straight rollicking stomper. It’s a forgotten classic brought back to life by Bette and the band with real passion and power.
On Durty Hustlin she goes low and makes every note dangerously seductive. Shackles and Chain is the big soul number, reminiscent of the Daptone style or Aretha at her most bombastic. Do Your Thing, an Issac Hayes cover, adds a funky seventies groove to the album. City in the Sky is a song made famous by the Staple Singers and while Smith might have a more raw edge than Mavis, a gospel influence runs deep, most notably on Flying Sweet Angel of Joy.
Jetlagger is an eruption of effervescent charm from start to finish. So board the plane, take your seat and strap in because you don’t want to miss it when this woman takes to the skies.
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!