Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone
With Jeff Tweedy in tow, blurring distinctions between secular and sacred, young and old, traditional and progressive
Few singers bridge the gospel/pop-soul divide with as much grace and down-home feeling as the former lead vocalist of the Staple Singers. In this remarkable collaboration with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, 71-year-old Mavis Staples inhabits a world that's both timeless and timely: Forgoing contemporary standards in favor of forgotten gospel classics, early Staple Singers oldies, a few left-field pop-rock choices, and a pair of stately new Tweedy songs, Staples and the Wilco leader (with help from his band's keyboardist, Patrick Sansone) blur the distinctions between secular and sacred, young and old, traditional and progressive.
It's the perfect approach for a woman whose early '70s smashes like "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There" combine wry social commentary, Black pride and unshakable Christian faith with earthy dance grooves and unquestionably sensuous soul shouting. Staples no longer wails with the same force, but her delivery remains exceptionally nuanced: Check album opener "You Don't Knock," a remake of a mid-century Staple Singers nugget that mimics leader Pops Staples's warm, reverb-drenched guitar tone. It's a sound that inspired what John Fogerty did with Credence Clearwater Revival — one that makes Staples's rendition of CCR's "Wrote a Song For Everyone" feel like a homecoming, not a stretch. "Downward Road," another pre-crossover Staple Singers original, here is revisited in a deeper new key. Mavis explores the bottom end of her register with foreboding results, taking her to ghoulish Tom Waits territory (Remember that the Staples once scored an R&B hit with their faithful and yet perfectly natural rendition of Talking Heads' "Slippery People").
Equally offbeat choices, rendered similarly effortless, include Randy Newman's forlorn 2008 ballad "Losing You" and Allen Toussaint's 1975 funky cult favorite "Last Train." And while deeply traditional gospel tracks create a focal point these secular cuts complement, the two Tweedy contributions connect the two poles. "Only the Lord Knows" sets up the CCR cover with echoes of Pops's swamp-rock guitar, while the somber but uplifting title track moves Mavis into the stark, folky territory of later-day Johnny Cash. No one can say this septuagenarian doesn't still possess range as well as depth.