Monday, December 27, 2010

Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone

Rating: B

I was a fan of Mavis Staples' last endeavor, 2007's We'll Never Turn Back, and when I found out Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) was producing her new album, I was intrigued. I'm a huge Wilco fan, and Tweedy is, in my opinion, perhaps the best songwriter of his generation. I enjoyed her performance at the Solid Sound festival this summer, so when her new album You Are Not Alone went on sale on Amazon for $1.99 (and it's still only $5), I picked it up.

I didn't go in with a lot of expectations, and that's good - anyone expecting Staples' soulful voice over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-style psychedelic lyrics and instrumentation would certainly be disappointed. This album is a lot closer to We'll Never Turn Back than it is to any of Wilco's catalog. There are two Tweedy originals here - the title track is like a soul update of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," complete with gorgeous harmonies, while "Only the Lord Knows" mixes the direct, casual style Tweedy has employed on some recent Wilco efforts ("I pick up the paper / I put down the paper / Turn on the TV / I get confused") with the political ("Can't trust him / can't trust her") and religious ("Only the Lord knows / And He ain't you") themes that have pervaded Staples' career. "Only the Lord Knows" would be totally out of place on a Wilco album, and the same sentiment applies to the album's covers - "In Christ There Is No East and West," "I Belong to the Band," and "Creep Along Moses" are right out of the gospel tradition.

Mavis' claim to fame is the amount of feeling and power in her voice, and nowhere is that more on display than in the cover of John Fogerty's "Wrote a Song For Everyone." She owns the tune; it feels much more personal when she sings it than in Creedence Clearwater Revival's original. The song takes on a gravity, transforming it into a sweeping statement about the civil rights movement.

This is a decen album, but all in all, predecessor We'll Never Turn Back touches on more profound emotional chords than You Are Not Alone. Tweedy doesn't really bring any of the weirdness or experimentation on display in Wilco. That's OK; the formula wasn't broken, and the cuts are mostly strong here, but it still feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Mavis Staples official site

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