Lorette Velvette, who‘s fond of unusual covers, should maybe consider adding “Que Sera Sera” to her songbag. Given her point of view, it’s certainly more appropriate for her repertoire than for Doris Day‘s — or Sly Stone’s, for that matter.
Four years ago, over a plate of fried chicken in a Memphis soul-food joint, I asked singer-guitarist Velvette why she had not yet attained greater recognition, despite a local recording and performing career that even then stretched back a decade. “I don‘t know,” she drawled, with a slight shrug. “I don’t pursue it a lot. If it happens, it‘d be fine. But it’s so much PR work that you have to do that I‘m just not interested in doing.”
Captivated by her unique style, I slapped Velvette’s mug on the front page of the country‘s most prominent music trade publication. She promptly moved to South America for a couple of years.
In spite of her own insouciance about fame, Velvette — who has since moved back to Memphis and married musician Alex Greene — can currently be heard on no fewer than three independent American releases. Rude Angel is her first U.S. album in her own name, incredibly enough; it compiles material from three out-of-print collections issued by Germany’s Veracity Records during the ‘90s. Five Points Crawl showcases her as the principal singer of what string player Dave Soldier calls his “Delta punk” band, the Kropotkins. And two tracks on a a two-CD compilation of singles from Ed Porter’s Memphis imprint Loverly Music place her in the context of her town‘s contemporary music.
Velvette has covered a lot of ground to arrive at where she is. Born Lori Godwin in Savannah, Tennessee, she was just a teenage flute player until she moved to Memphis and fell in, musically and romantically, with an anarchy-prone musician named Gus Nelson. He called himself Tav Falco and dubbed her Lorette Velvette; he schooled her, and they played together in his shambling roots-punk unit the Panther Burns. Velvette later worked behind North Mississippi blueswoman Jessie Mae Hemphill, whose grounding in the region’s fife-and-drum music would have an impact on Velvette‘s sound; played in the Alluring Strange; co-founded the all-gal punk group the Hellcats; and, in the early ’90s, cut her first solo album, White Birds, with no less a figure than Box TopsBig Star cult hero Alex Chilton producing. Two more albums, Dream Hotel (1995) and Lost Part of Me (1997), followed; they were virtually impossible to find outside Memphis, and Veracity went belly up almost as soon as the third disc was issued.
Rude Angel draws from those records for a deep demonstration of the many things Velvette does well. She applies her fetchingly languid, wobbling voice to a broad variety of material. Maybe not surprisingly, a pair of Chilton-produced tracks come across as the least effective numbers; it sounds like the maverick musician was trying to remake his own chaotic album Like Flies on Sherbert with a female singer. The most compelling tunes are juicy remakes of blues numbers such as Fred McDowell‘s “You Got To Move,” R.L. Burnside’s “Going Down South” and Skip James‘ “Special Rider,” all filigreed with silvery slide-guitar work; blasts of vintage glam rock (a hangover from years of Savannah street cruising), such as Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” and T. Rex‘s “20th Century Boy”; and slices of rumbling fife-and-drum mess-around, such as the forceful invitation “Come On Over” and the instrumental “Frog and Peach.”
The fife-and-drum sound and later blues-based string-band styles come into play in the music of the Kropotkins, a New York–based outfit led by violinist-guitarist-banjoist Soldier. (Like Velvette and her ex-partner Falco, Soldier has remade himself in music: By day, he’s known as Dr. David Sulzer, assistant professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University med school.) For Five Points Crawl, the band‘s second album, ex–Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker has taken the sextet’s drum chair, and she shows a sure hand with the most exotic rhythms. The best cuts are the churning North Mississippi jump-ups “Seconds Past Midnight” and “Sissy Wa Wa,” and the smoldering “Junior‘s Groove,” an apparent homage to the trancey style of the late bluesman Junior Kimbrough.
“The Singles” (1997–1999) sets Velvette’s “Boys Keep Swinging” and her version of Roxy Music‘s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” alongside 45s by faux-country singer Lucynell Crater, rock impressionists the Satyrs, writer Robert Gordon, hubby “Al. X” Greene and other locals. (An earlier compilation devoted to 1995-96 Loverly singles included “20th Century Boy” and a lubricious take on the Stooges’ “Dirt.”) While this album makes it plain that Memphis is still home to plenty of mad talent, Lorette Velvette remains one of my favorites out of that relatively unsung scene. Skilled, highly versatile and, well, lusciously sexy, she‘s the belle of the Bluff City ball.