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Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone

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Artist: Mavis Staples

Album: You Are Not Alone

Label: Anti-

Review date: Sep. 15, 2010


Mavis Staples - "You Are Not Alone" (You Are Not Alone)


Jeff who? Wilco what? Once you’ve shared a Grammy nomination with Dylan, it’s probably hard to get too excited about new collaborators. And in fact, over a career that has now stretched well over half a century, Mavis Staples has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Curtis Mayfield to John Scofield. Her last record was produced by Ry Cooder, a couple before that by Prince.

So, though Jeff Tweedy is a marquee name in indie rock, he most likely wasn’t that big of a deal to Mavis Staples. By all accounts, she didn’t know much about him or Wilco when he first approached her. There wasn’t even really that much overlap between them. Tweedy made his name in alt.country’s Uncle Tupelo and guitar rock monolith Wilco. Staples was an icon of gospel, 1960s protest music, R&B and Stax soul.

Tweedy was, however, a big fan of Staples, and his enthusiasm for and knowledge of her (enormous) back catalogue won her over. He knew the early gospel records as well as the No. 1 charting soul singles “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again.” He understood the importance of songs like Staples’ cover of “Hard Rain” and “Long Walk to D.C.” to the Civil Rights Movement. He had a grasp, not just of Staples own work, but the writers and artists and gospel tradition around her.

All this is apparent when you listen to You Are Not Alone. Its selection of covers, variety of arrangement styles, its suppleness in supporting Staples’ voice all speak to a real understanding of who she is and what she does. And so, unlike some May-December musical partnerships, You Are Not Alone seems less about updating the older musician’s image or making her relevant to a younger audience, and more about celebrating what is unique to her.

Its 13 tracks trace the arc of her career, with a couple of the best, “You Don’t Knock” and “Downward,” written by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples from the old Staples Family Singers days. There’s another strong set drawn from traditional hymns (“In Christ There Is No East or West”), spirituals (“Creep Along Moses”) and gospel songs (Rev. Gary Davis’ “I Belong to the Band”). Two songs come from Staples’ secular R&B contemporaries — Allen Touissant and Little Milton — recalling her chart-topping forays into Stax soul. Perhaps to remind us of her success in covering Dylan and Stephen Stills’ protest songs in the 1960s, the lead single is a Creedance Clearwater Revival song called “Wrote a Song for Everyone.” And just to bring everything up to the current minute, Tweedy contributes two songs, the lovely and ruminative title track and the somewhat more forced “Only the Lord Knows.”

These songs vary significantly in style and instrumentation, ranging from a capella “Wonderful Savior” to an electrically boogie-fied “Last Train” (the Touissant cut, as it happens). Staples’ long-time band does most of the heavy lifting, though they are supplemented at least some of the time by most of Wilco (except Nels Cline) and Neko Case, Kelly Hogan and Richard Parenti in a gospel backing choir.

The playing is quite good throughout, brassily rocking in some spots (“Downward Road,” “Last Train”), stately and soulful in others (“You Are Not Alone,” “Wrote a Song for Everyone”). Yet the album rides on the strength of the vocals, which, now, more than 60 years since Staples first stepped out in front of a church choir, are still remarkable. Smoky, gutsy, and full of subtle bends and shifts, her voice remains exceptionally emotionally potent and malleable. There’s something expert and sure about the way she puts a joyful gospel bounce under “You Don’t Knock,” a raucous church-raiser, or how she scrapes the rough-edges out of “Downward Road.” Or even more impressive, how she turns even non-traditional songs — the two Tweedy compositions or Randy Newman’s “Losing You” — into exhilarating expressions of her sacred R&B.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Tweedy’s production here is how well he’s stayed in the background, allowing Staples to do what she does best. There’s nothing self-consciously modern or calculated about You Are Not Alone, no visible strain from trying to mold Staples’ style into something she’s not. It’s just her, as she is at her best, and Tweedy deserves credit for bringing that out.

By Jennifer Kelly

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