Style: Gritty, soulful gospel; compare to Irma Thomas, Aretha Franklin, even Neko Case
Top tracks: "You Are Not Alone," "In Christ There Is No East or West," "Wonderful Savior"
The term "inspirational music" has gotten a bad name, and not without reason; too often, it's lazy shorthand used by journalists or record stores to denote music with a feel-good, vaguely spiritual vibe but, more often than not, little in the way of real substance, to say nothing of backbone. But Mavis Staples makes music that is truly inspirational—not because it glosses over the hardships of life, but because it embraces hope in spite of them.
Staples is a national treasure. She began her career with the Staples Family Singers in 1950, before she even hit her teens. She's 71 now, and her street cred has never been higher. She makes terrifically gritty gospel albums for the renegade indie label ANTI- now (which includes Tom Waits, Roky Erickson, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), and she's riding high on critical acclaim for recent work with musical gurus like Ry Cooder and Joe Henry, plus a live album that some critics have heralded as one of the all-time greats.
Her latest is You Are Not Alone, and this time the man at the helm is Jeff Tweedy, the singer/songwriter who fronts indie stalwarts Wilco. With Tweedy at the helm, Staples is enjoying the finest production of her career; the album is a raw, ragged beauty—one that derives its soul and authenticity from its rough edges. It's a wonderfully warm, unfussy recording that splits the difference between vintage Staples Family gospel—numbers like "Downward Road" even emulate Pop Staples' rumbling reverberator guitar—and sweet, sonorous soul; the title cut, written by Tweedy, almost sounds like something from his band's Sky Blue Sky album, only lighter and with more heart. He also coaxes his star vocalist into new territory; would you believe that "Wonderful Savior" is, according to Mavis, her first-ever a capella recording?
What makes the album, of course, are the songs. Tweedy wrote a couple, and a couple are old Staples Family staples. There are also covers of songs by Allen Toussaint, Randy Newman, and John Fogerty. What unites them is their deep, abiding hopefulness. These are songs that give real inspiration—songs emphasizing the kinship of believers, the promise of a heavenly kingdom, the joys of persevering even through trials by fire.
And there is some fire, by the way, and some brimstone to go with it, most clearly on "Downward Road," a blistering account of where the wicked's ways will lead them. Clearly, Tweedy hasn't removed the heart of the gospel just for the sake of making this music "inspirational." He lets Mavis be Mavis, better than she's ever been before—and that's what makes this album not just a treasure, but an inspiration.
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