Music Reviews

posted: September 9, 2010

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Mavis Stapes You Are Not Alone

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Mavis Stapes

Mavis Staples doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. Her heritage, experience, and sound make for one of the most interesting stories in music—a tale that’s still waiting to be told in a well-written biography—and her conviction for her subject matter is as pure as cane sugar. Staples believes and inhabits every word she sings. Her messages of hope, faith, joy, and perseverance aren’t a construct or act; they honestly represent who she is as a person. Just how the Chicago icon continues to escape most mainstream listeners despite her pedigree, voice, and interpretive skills remains a quandary that lacks a credible answer. Particularly considering the excellence of her last three releases—2004’s comeback Have A Little Faith, 2007’s riveting We’ll Never Turn Back, and 2008’s electrifying Live: Hope at the Hideout.

Staples’ fortunes are forecast to change with the highly anticipated You Are Not Alone. Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, it’s the record that many predict—or at least wish—will bring her wider acclaim and serve as a commercial breakout. Having dazzled audiences in August at Lollapalooza, at which Tweedy joined her onstage, all indications suggested that the former leader singer for gospel’s legendary Staples Singers had, at the age of 71, finally created a defining solo statement that would carry her for years to come.

There’s only one problem. While there’s nothing egregious about You Are Not Alone, it’s not the album it could—or should—have been. Yes, all of Staples’ trademark vocal and stylistic personas are present. There are gospel rave-ups that float on heaven-bound clouds of rejoining voices and flanged guitar (“Don’t Knock,” “Downward Road”). Hand-clapping soul stirrers (a hopping cover of Rev. Gary Davis’ “I Belong to the Band—Hallelujah”). Aching, wounded-soul balladry (a cover of Randy Newman’s “Losing You”). Swampy shuffles (the Allen Toussaint-penned “Last Train”) and upwelling folk-rock (an engaging take on John Fogerty’s “Wrote A Song For Everyone”). Tweedy’s pair of originals split the difference, with the sleepy title track falling short and the blues-punctured melody of “Only the Lord Knows” triumphing over a few bland lyrics. Keen listeners will note the latter tune’s parallels to Wilco’s recent work, as well as the tameness of “In Christ There Is No East or West,” a forgiveness-preaching traditional tethered to Wilco member Pat Sansone’s twilight keyboard notes. And it’s the Wilco angle that might be the source of the problem.

While clean, reverberant, and organic, the record lacks edge and risk. Seeming more and more like he’s permanently settled into “dad rock” mode, Tweedy plays it safe with the arrangements and stellar backing band, ostensibly repeating moves Staples executed in the past. There’s plenty of salvation and spirituality but a glaring shortage of fire and brimstone. For all intents and purposes, the approach yields solid results. Still, a proverbial “great record” this is not. And that’s a shame.
What’s most overt is that the well-intentioned, 13-track set fails to capture the transcendent dynamic present at a Staples concert. She is an irrepressible woman who can make an atheist believe, uplift the most depressed soul, and move an audience to tears. Staples possesses a raw power that isn’t dissimilar to that referenced by the Iggy Pop and Stooges song of the same name. And it’s not for lack of preparation; Tweedy knows his subject and did his homework. You Are Not Alone is a communion of two like-minded souls. However, he somehow forgot to pour Staples’ essential live components into the music and shape a record that claims a similar energy, urgency, and feel.

Lord knows that Staples still has the drive, intensity, and voice to create a studio album on par with her enormous talents. You Are Not Alone is satisfying. But you’re going to want it to be absorbing. And, because of that deficiency, listeners—and, indirectly, Staples—are left wanting.

–Bob Gendron