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Betty Davis - Betty Davis / They Say I'm Different

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Artist: Betty Davis

Album: Betty Davis / They Say I'm Different

Label: Light in the Attic

Review date: Apr. 10, 2007

Much has already been made - and rightfully so - of 1970s funk diva Betty Davis’ pioneering attitude of wide-open sexuality and her self-described “Nasty Gal” persona. But perhaps now, with the reissue of her first two albums, it might be time to simply celebrate the pure emotional honesty and utterly arresting soulfullness of her music.

The best funk is all about tension, only just teasing at the edges of relief, and that’s just what the grooves do on the eponymous first album, from 1973. The opening track, “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” is a fine example of the entire album’s perfect pacing, built upon locked-in and bone-dry drum and bass parts from Greg Errico and Larry Graham, alumni of Sly and the Family Stone. The dirty, Bay Area funk crunch of the electric guitars - zoned-in tightly on the groove or exploding in gnarly-but-disciplined leads - from Douglas Rodriguez and Santana/Journey man Neal Schon combine with Merl Saunders’ fat organ textures to create an almost unbearable atmosphere of focus and drive. That’s when Betty Davis enters, groaning, screaming, and cooing her song about prowling and wanting, of needing and getting. Davis’ is an amazing voice, communicating from deep inside the church of the body. Sometimes it has an almost frighteningly intense presence; at other times it’s a hoarse, but sultry, in-your-ear whisper. Listening, it’s hard not to hang on every word and exhortation, wondering what will happen next.

They Say I'm Different, from 1974, is built from the same template as the first album, although the backing on some tracks seem slightly slicker, and there are some more arranged background vocals in evidence. That said, there’s no discernible taming of Davis’ immediacy here. Indeed, there’s a fascinating vein of futuristic blues to be found on some tracks, most obviously on the stunning title song, in which Davis conjures deep southern country roots storytelling and then gives a sideways lesson in the history of the blues, helped along by a thick and ferocious swampy groove and some biting slide guitar.

For all the heated intensity and sexuality displayed on the bulk of these tracks, it’s intriguing that Davis chose to end each of these records with a slower song, delivering lyrics that reveal tenderness and vulnerability. The intimate declaration of love and acceptance she delivers on “Special People,” from They Say I'm Different, would hold just about any heart in thrall. “In the Meantime,” from the 1973 album, is a breathtaking vocal performance, a disarmingly honest expression of loneliness and quiet, hard-won inner strength. Both offer proof that Betty Davis should be considered not just as a funk iconoclast and powerfully erotic performer, but also as a truly unique - and all too often ignored - soul singer.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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