Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mavis Staples: One True Vine

Holy moly.  Is it only Tuesday?  Well, what can I say - there's a simple reason that I'm confused about the day, and that's because I started a new job.  And while the majority of my duties are fairly simple, I'm also trying to learn to identify nearly a hundred people, and NOT ONE of them has the common decency to mutter their name under their breath repeatedly as they walk by my desk, or get shirts silkscreened with their job functions.  Furthermore, my one hope at redemption (that each of these folks would have a defining and unmistakable characteristic, like "Jimmy is the modern-day samurai", "John is the one who shoots lightning bolts out of his palms when the copier runs low on toner", or "Mabel is the one with the purple turbans") has proved fruitless: I haven't even heard an accent amongst the lot.  Luckily, I'm home now, so it's totally cool to just give up and research Mavis Staples instead.

So before we get to the tunes, lets talk about my findings.  First and foremost, Wikipedia identifies Staples as 1/5 of The Staple Singers, "an American gospel, soul, and R&B singing group" that signed its first music contract in 1952 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 (the rest of the members were all family, including her father "Pops" and three siblings).  Furthermore, according to this interview over at Maximum Fun, the group got its start singing in churches, where "Pops had his guitar, and he had a tremolo on the guitar. Nobody knew what that was. Elvis Presley told me one time, 'I like the way your father plays the guitar. He plays a nervous guitar.'  That was a tremolo. So no one had a guitar, we were the only ones singing with the guitar. Some of the ministers didn’t want Pops to bring his guitar in their churches. He would show them in the Bible where it says, 'Praise him with strings. Praise him with tambourines and stringed instruments.'  Written in the Bible.  So they would change their minds and let us come in and sing in their churches."  And while I found plenty of other interesting information on Staples, I'll run out of time before I run out of content, so I'll skip over her collaborations with Prince, her and her family's commitment to spreading Martin Luther King's message through song, and their determination to record songs "full of inspiration; to help someone - - of truth and love."  Staples's latest work, after all, has its own story: her last two albums (including this one) have been produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, and the majority of instrumentation was also performed by Tweedy, with his 17-year-old son on drums (per this article on The Wall Street Journal).  Of course, her message-based perspective remains the same, or as she tells WSJ, "I won't wear rings and jewelry on the stage because I don't want you looking at my hands. I want you hearing what I'm saying. I don't want the band to play too loud. I'm singing these songs to inspire you, to keep you going, to lift you up and give you a reason to get up in the morning. These aren't just songs I'm singing to be moving my lips. I mean this."  Fortunately, it's a message the listener gets clearly from the music as well.

Which brings us to the album.  Rhapsody classifies Staples as soul blues, and that's a designation I've kept despite the clear gospel overtones of many of the tracks (which have names like "Jesus Wept" and "Woke Up This Morning [With My Mind On Jesus]").  And I've kept it because of the sound of the music itself - if you were a non-English speaker, for instance, it would be the quietly strummed guitar, riverboat-house-band drums, and deep-throated, impassioned vocal delivery that would strike you rather than the occasional Jesus reference (Staples's voice is low enough to call her gender into question at times, and apparently has been since she was a child.  or as she tells Maximum Fun, "People would bet on me. The disc jockeys would say, 'This is little Mavis Staples singing, a little 14 year old.'  People would bet, actually bet their money that I was not a little girl.").  For example, clear standout and Tweedy-penned "Every Step" uses a dark, moody guitar, a blurry bass, and a clattering of chains to deliver an uplifting message ("Every step of the way/I found grace/If I lead or follow/Change my pace"), and "What Are They Doing In Heaven Today" opens with sparkly guitars over a cymbal-accented beat before launching into a swaying, rolling chorus ("I'm thinking of friends whom I used to know/Who lived and suffered in this world below/They've gone off to heaven but I wanna know/What are they doing there now?").  And for a more-secular number, there's the fuzz-ridden "I Like The Things About Me", a Staple Singers song from 40 years ago that was written by Pops for a "time when blacks, some of us, were ashamed of our nappy hair and our thick lips. Put down because of it. Pops came with the idea to be proud" (from WSJ) ("I like the things about me that I once despised").

Although I suspect you already know what conclusion is coming, I'll spell it out for you anyway: this is a damn fine album, and Staples delivers on her promise of prioritizing the message behind her songs (incidentally, she's also signed to the same label as Bettye LaVette, so high five to those guys).  Furthermore, Tweedy's production and guitar add a modern edge to each track (even the forty-year-old ones), and Staples's voice, while probably not "pretty", provides a deep listen.  Basically, this album is all you could ask for in a down-to-earth, bluesy, gospel-y soul album with a highly-experienced woman at the helm, and is well worth a listen or two (my husband even liked it, and he's unnaturally grumpy).  Finally, to make the pot even sweeter, I've already learned her name.

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