Bettye LaVette Credit: Mark Seliger

Bob Dylan has famously and relentlessly toyed with the melodies and arrangements of his voluminous repertoire, using his songs as perpetual works in progress despite the iconic status of many of them. His open-ended mind-set makes his ouevre particularly well suited for treatment by veteran soul singer Bettye LaVette, who in 2005 rebooted a largely moribund career by putting an indelible mark on songs by Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann, and Lucinda Williams on her now-classic record I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. Though she’s rarely turned to soul or blues for source material since her reemergence, her renditions couldn’t come from anyplace else. For the searing new Things Have Changed (Verve) LaVette worked with producer Steve Jordan to tackle 12 Dylan tunes. The songs are mostly taken from albums he released from the late 70s onward that have gone largely overlooked—”Do Right,” a chill track on his first gospel album, Slow Train Coming, appears in a jacked-up blues-rock version—but considering the way she reinvents classics like “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “The Times They Are a Changin’,” it doesn’t matter whether you know the originals anyway—you might not recognize them at first listen. LaVette even dares to pare down some of Dylan’s lyrics, focusing on his cutting lines more than on his skeins of verses; according to press materials, she left out four on “Ain’t Talkin'” (from 2006’s Modern Times) to quickly get to the heart of the song. Within the sleek blues-rock arrangements shaped by a band that includes Jordan, bassist Pino Palladino, and longtime Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell, she emphasizes a more elemental emotional thrust than the songwriter does. I’ve previously noted that LaVette can make just about anything compelling with the earthy grit of her voice and the commanding power of her presence, but when she tackles material as strong as Dylan’s she’s sublime. Plus, her readings have already sent me back to reconsidered maligned Dylan records such as 1985’s Empire Burlesque and 1989’s Oh Mercy!, off which she covers, respectively, “Emotionally Yours” and “Seeing the Real You at Last” along with “Political World.”   v