Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mavis Hits Lofty Heights

A few weeks ago I picked up a new CD that, somewhat to my surprise, will likely end up being one of my favorite albums of 2010. It’s Mavis Staples’ You Are Not Alone.

I’ve long been familiar with Staples’ status as a major part of the legendary Staple Singers family ensemble that brought the spirit of southern gospel to the Civil Rights Movement, and with it her soulful vocal prowess. But I can’t claim to know anything about her career since those halcyon days. And, while I’ve always appreciated good gospel music, I’m not a dedicated or knowledgeable fan of the genre.

I do relish the soulfulness, rich choral funkiness and bluesy tinge of the best gospel – and, to a degree, even some of the righteous devotion and, conversely, unintentional humor. The deep rhythm and ecstatically powerful vocal expulsions of artists like Aretha Franklin and a few others is, undeniably, music to be reckoned with. Yet, too much of the genre – that is, mediocre gospel – leaves me unimpressed musically and put off by the heavy-handed, overly-pious sanctimoniousness of the subject matter.

That said, this new Mavis Staples album is pure gospel soul; highly listenable and, often, truly inspirational. In short, it’s brilliant.

I admit I was motivated to buy this CD, not because of a compelling interest in Staples, but rather because of Jeff Tweedy’s involvement as producer, composer, arranger and musical accompanist (I’m a long-time Wilco fan). While Tweedy’s fingerprints are evident on You Are Not Alone, this is no au courant star-turn charity gig for a past-prime legend. Far from it. For the most part, Tweedy lays back and lets Mavis’ soulful sensibilities light the way.

Besides an obvious respect for the artist’s skill and an appreciation of the power of gospel at its best, what Tweedy brings to the affair is an astute sense of song-craft and a hint of Americana. The result is a distinctive suggestion of some of The Band’s best recordings – overtly on a few tracks and subtly on the album as a whole. It’s deep gospel, but with a pronounced dash of blues, soulful R & B and alt-country twang. So, regardless of how you feel about the pronounced Christian gospel vibe, the grooves, hooks and vocals are irresistible on this simple, yet richly nuanced CD.

A brief interview and stripped-down rehearsal duet with Mavis and Tweedy.

The opening track is an upbeat gospel take on Pops Staples’ tune “Don’t Knock.” The strong backing vocals elicit comparisons with Aretha’s 1960s’ soul hits, while also suggesting a female version of The Jordanaires.

The Band references emerge in full force on the Tweedy-penned title track, which really sounds like Levon & Co. doing gospel (they did dabble, you may recall, on songs like “I Shall Be Released,” and, lest we forget, The Staple Singers were among the legion of legends invited to celebrate The Last Waltz).

If there are any Wilco references embedded in this record, “In Christ There Is No East or West” – musically at least – is the most obvious. The pairing of the tinkling keyboards (celeste and mellotron courtesy of Wilco’s Pat Sansone) and picked acoustic guitar lines (by Tweedy) are, not surprisingly, strongly reminiscent of the Wilco sound. The lyrical message of devotion, racial-harmony and forgiveness are well-meaning, if a bit contrived sounding, though they’re delivered with catchy choruses and some of the album’s most potent melodies.

There are three tracks on You Are Not Alone on which the band ramps up the blues-rock grit. The upbeat bluesy gospel of “Creep Along Moses” is driven by some nasty electric guitar and slinky slide riffs that creep right along with old Mo’ as he’s nudged along by Mavis and some great background vocals. Then there’s Allen Toussaint’s “Last Train,” which features some deft electric guitar melodies during the verses, accompanied by some delightfully-humorous, soulful “choo-choo’s” from the female chorus. Finally, there’s “Only the Lord Knows,” with its solid, funky R & B groove and catchy vocal that is part devotional and part put-you-in-your-place kiss off. “Only the Lord knows, and he ain’t you,” indeed!

One of the few departures from the various gospel themes is the slow blues lament of “Losing You,” a sorrowful, heartfelt ode Mavis sings about the loss of a loved one: “The sun stopped shining, it rained all the time. It did set me back some; oh, but I made it through. But I'll never get over losing you.”

In contrast, the pace picks up again with an upbeat rendition of the Rev. Gary Davis’ “I Belong to the Band.” It’s a rockin’, clapping-driven, country-folk gospel of the ilk dabbled in by Bruce Springsteen with his Seeger sessions CDs, The Blasters on “Samson and Delilah” or Delaney & Bonnie on “Poor Elijah.” It’s one of this strong album’s best tunes.

The Band influence comes to the fore again on another of the album’s standout tracks: “Wrote a Song for Everyone.” Mavis shines with a vocal that recalls “The Weight” in an emotive performance supported by majestically interwoven instrumentation. Everything from the lyrics and vocal phrasing to the melodic lead guitar lines and the overall style, tone and arrangement recall the (mostly) Canadian road warriors in their prime.

Later in the CD, an added dimension emerges as male vocalist Donny Gerrard joins Mavis for a couple of duets. The first, “We’re Gonna Make It,” is an optimistic R & B tune that, to my ear at least, ever-so-subtly recalls The Temptation’s “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” There’s some snazzy staccato rhythm guitar licks, shuffling drums and a powerfully sustained organ that propels the tune along.

Despite all the songs having a definite gospel, soul or R & B feel, the album offers many tangents within the framework, not the least of which is the perfectly executed a cappella treatment of “Wonderful Savior,” in which Mavis determinably leads the glory-inspired chorus: “I am his, and he is mine!”

The album closes with the slow blues of “Too Close / On My Way to Heaven,” the first part of which starts with a lengthy blues vocal by Gerrard leading into a chorus-backed duet with Staples and resonant blues guitar accompaniment before segueing into a reverential nod to Pops Staples’ inspirational gospel.

Aretha should make an album like this, if the “Queen of Soul” still has it in her and can find as sympathetic a collaborator. You Are Not Alone makes it obvious that Mavis still does, as well as showing what savvy, supportive and skilled helping hands (and ears) can do for an accomplished but dormant talent.

This record is not only great Sunday morning listening, as a any decent gospel recording should be, it’s great any time listening.

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