Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone

A couple weeks ago when I wrote about spiritually inspired music, one of my sisters pointed out that Mavis Staples had a new album out (“You Are Not Alone”) that was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. I had read something about that in passing but didn’t make much of it at the time. However, my sister’s email got me thinking and I decided to buy the album as I love both Wilco and R&B. Concurrently (prophetically?), Starbucks had one of those free song cards for one of the songs on the album. Finally, in case I needed a tenth sign that I should be listening to this album, my dad sent a couple of us an email with reference to a short clip in the New Yorker about some “Soul Sisters” he thought we might find historically interesting, noting that it was “very popular music in the olden days”. Little House on the Prairie goes to church? Anyway, I was already doing my research on this album and was thrilled to have another tidbit to add. I was even more thrilled that my dad had referred an article to me that was related to music rather than the financial industry; although it’s my field of work it’s frankly much more boring than music.

If you’re not familiar with Mavis Staples, and I have to admit that I wasn’t all that familiar with her, she was part of a family gospel group called the Staple Singers many, many decades ago. Although her list of accomplishments is long (she’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award) and her age is on the older side (71), she has had somewhat of a resurrection in the past decade, even playing at Lollapalooza this past summer.

One of my favorite parts about reviewing albums is not just being exposed to new music that wouldn’t likely be heard on the radio, but also in learning how the albums were inspired. Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples are both Chicagoans (Mavis being a lifelong South Sider), and Tweedy heard her perform a couple years ago, having been a fan for quite some time. He approached her about doing an album, and the time was right for her as she was uncertain what direction to take her music.

Tweedy ended up choosing 11 songs from the past, many of which Mavis performed with the Staple Singers and/or were written by her father, and writing two new songs for her. There is also a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover (“Wrote a Song for Everyone”) and one from Randy Newman (“Losing You”). They recorded the songs in Wilco’s studio in Chicago, and in the bio they provided for Amazon, Staples says that she loved going to the studio each day and having the Wilco band members stop by with their babies. I love that image!

The result of it all is that we get her beautiful rich voice combined with some arrangements that are a bit more contemporary. In the New Yorker interview, she expressed how pleased she is that “Mr. Tweedy” (adorable!) has helped her attract some younger listeners. The two of them have been doing the talk show circuit, performing on The Colbert Report and Letterman. She truly has a beautiful voice, although when I sing along I am confident I sound just as good- she’s that talented that she can trick us into believing that about ourselves!

Many of the songs are heavily gospel, but don’t be dissuaded if you’re not really into that- I’m normally not either. There is not a bad song on the album, but the ones I particularly love are the title track (“You Are Not Alone”), which is one of the two songs on the album that Tweedy wrote, “In Christ There is No East or West”, and “Don’t Knock”. That being said, I have found myself singing just about all of the songs to myself at some point this past week. I also had the album on in the kitchen the other night while my 16-year old daughter and I were both cooking, and she didn’t complain. There you go: an album for all ages.

Below is an acoustic version of "We Are Not Alone" performed by Staples and Tweedy.  Enjoy!

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1 comment:

  1. I love the Staples. Mavis is an amazing force. Would love to hear her and Bette LaVette together.