Staples and Tweedy resurrect that classic Staple Singers sound on ‘You Are Not Alone’: a review and open letter by J. Hayes
During long, hot summers in my youth, the sent of tobacco, set a blaze against the mid August sun, would waft over my outstretched body on the floor of our small North Carolina cabin. Often my ears would ring with the sound of distant cicadas and gentle tremolo guitar, always followed closely by the earnest and resonant voice of a young Mavis Staples. The sounds, indissoluble companions in my childhood memory. The words of uplift, reflection and struggle, simple and poignant poetry; understood by the heart if not yet the intellect.
Excuse me my self-indulgent soliloquy. But the music of Roebuck, Mavis, Pervis, Cleotha and Yvonne Staples is much more than simple listening for me. It is genuine magic. First signed in 1952, the Staples Singers have experienced and relayed nearly 60 years of social change. Conjuring moments of peace, praise and promise, in frequent times of less than.
So, whenever I hear of a new Mavis Staples record, I temper my excitement. Can it hold up to the masterpieces of those classic Staple Singers records: “Uncloudy Day” or “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” through “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again”?
Since beginning her stint on Anti- Records, however, I haven’t been let down. Beginning with the Ry Cooder produced We’ll Never Turn Back and reaching even closer to my musical truth with Live: Hope at the Hideout featuring some backing from a personal favorite, Ollabelle, nothing has come so close to the perfection of those early family records as the newly released You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
Until I get to live out my life’s ambition and produce a Mavis Staples album myself (and I will spare you, dear reader, the details of this deft proffering…thrilling as they would be, I assure you), You Are Not Alone will serve as the bench mark in contemporary Staples offerings.
Kicking the album off, “Don’t Knock” is an upbeat rabble rouser, written by the late Pops Staples, perfectly capturing the sonic essence of those 50’s or 60’s mixes with backing vocals nestled comfortably between Mavis’ guttural lead and the crystalline tremolo guitar that you’d swear was performed by the patriarch himself. You’re then lead through a rolling set of compositions by writers ranging from Randy Newman and Allen Toussaint to John Fogerty and Tweedy himself, including blues traditionals by the likes of Rev. Gary Davis; all arranged, performed and produced with a remarkable consistency.
Ms. Staples says this is the most fun she’s had making a record and that joyful noise is present throughout. Recorded at Wilco’s own Chicago studio, Mavis’ is at home both literally and figuratively, backed by her touring band. A number of guests fade seamlessly in and out of the tracks, a pleasant change from the popular “featuring:” approach taken with so many records of late.
You Are Not Alone is a divine jubilation and worth every jocund moment. I look forward to the next Staples/Tweedy collaboration. And if that doesn’t happen….
Dear Ms. Staples,
Give me a call! I have an great engineer and studio on stand by.
With Love and Respect,
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special thanks to Anti- Records and my editor Kellee Webb