Betty LaVette, Candi Staton, Sugar Pie DeSanto, and Cassandra Wilson

Sweet Soul Music

Phases and Stages

Betty LaVette's long-orphaned Child of the Seventies frolics where last year's tepid comeback I've Got My Own Hell to Raise varnished. Rhino Handmade's precious Internet edition should be in every record store iPod from here to Oz, but such has been the 60-year-old Michigan native's unpaved yellow brick road. Martha, Aretha, Tina – LaVette aches, inspires, and prickles with the best of 'em on these long unreleased Muscle Shoals sessions cut for Atlantic in 1972-73. Her heavy-lidded "Fortune Teller" and strutting "Soul Tambourine" fairly dazzle, while another 30 minutes of bonus tracks sift up a 24-karat take on Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." Alabama-born Candi Staton left her own unforgettable vocal brand on said studio sanctuary, 2004's eponymous collection of raw southern soul also culled from Muscle Shoals in the early Seventies. Where LaVette's return was paved by too-studied pale boy Joe Henry, Staton entrusts her restoration to Lambchop's Mark Nevers. In His Hands (Astralwerks), the singer is gospel. Will Oldham's title track, written from Staton's abused past, leaves no emotion unwrenched, while the 66-year-old belter's own devotionals sit upright amongst rarifieds like Charlie Rich's heart-rending "You Never Really Wanted Me." Sugar Pie DeSanto, Oakland's enduring monument to R&B, made her splash in the mid-Fifties when soul man Johnny Otis busted out her vinyl debut. Refined Sugar (Jasman) puckers husky with age, 70, "How Many Times" and "Gimme a Penny" fitting the singer like velvet, but Big Mama Thornton's "Black Rat" gives DeSanto the slip amidst too many of her own lengthy vamps. Cassandra Wilson, 50, yields slow burn to no contemporary, so Thunderbird (Blue Note) inebriates faster than screw-top wine. Its late-night Ibiza chill, guitarist Marc Ribot's stainless steel Cosmopolitans and producer T-Bone Burnett's still-of-the-night, gets starker as it pours, sampled beats undulating with Wilson's narcotic moan like Nina Simone on a bear-skin rug – never better than on Meters-blown opener "Go to Mexico." Ageless, all.

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