Gospel with­out God

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - Steve Ter­rell

Mavis Sta­ples is in her 70s, and her new al­bum, You Are Not Alone, finds her do­ing what she’s al­ways done best — blur­ring the edges of soul, gospel, and pop mu­sic. And she sounds as strong as ever do­ing so.

I’m not say­ing that lightly. This al­bum is truly pow­er­ful, re­call­ing some of her most mem­o­rable mo­ments with The Sta­ples Singers back in the ’ 60s, with­out sound­ing nostal­gic or self-con­scious.

Sta­ples’ fel­low Chicagoite Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco pro­duced this al­bum. And he did as well as, if not bet­ter than, Ry Cooder on Sta­ples’ pre­vi­ous stu­dio al­bum, We’ll Never Turn Back (an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of spir­i­tu­als and civil rights-era tunes). To his credit, Tweedy ob­vi­ously wasn’t in­ter­ested in mak­ing a “Mavis Meets Wilco” record — which, I’ll ad­mit, I feared when first I heard about the part­ner­ship. He was just de­ter­mined to make a good Mavis Sta­ples record. (This is the sec­ond ex­cel­lent al­bum in re­cent years fea­tur­ing a soul ma­tron with an alt-coun­try pro­ducer. The first was Bet­tye LaVette’s The Scene of The Crime, which was co­pro­duced by the Drive-By-Truck­ers’ Pat­ter­son Hood in 2007.)

Tweedy is ob­vi­ously in love with that swampy, tremolo-gui­tar sound that was the trade­mark of Mavis’ late dad, “Pops” Sta­ples, back in The Sta­ples Singers days. For the best in­tro­duc­tion to this sound, don’t look to the group’s pop­u­lar hits like “Re­spect Your­self.” Search out its gospel works. A few years ago, I found a copy of a Sta­ples gospel col­lec­tion called Un­cloudy Day from the ’50s that se­ri­ously twisted my head off with Pops’ snaky gui­tar and those gritty vo­cals. Most of my fa­vorite songs on You Are Not Alone fea­ture that gui­tar sound — pro­vided here by a ca­pa­ble picker named Rick Holm­strom — and that gospel spirit.

There are three of Pops’ tunes here. “Don’t Knock” (which was also on Un­cloudy Day) kicks off the record. It’s an up­beat num­ber that does a great job of set­ting the mood. An­other Pops song, “On My Way to Heaven” is part of a medley with a tune called “Too Close,” which closes the al­bum. In be­tween is the old man’s coolest con­tri­bu­tion to this record, a hoodoo-drip­ping cruncher called “Down­ward Road.” Mavis sings lead while a cho­rus in­clud­ing Chicago song­birds Kelly Ho­gan and Nora O’Con­nor back her up.

There are some fine tra­di­tional gospel num­bers that are among my fa­vorites. Tony Joe White could have done a great ver­sion of “Creep Along Moses” — but I doubt if it would have been as great as the ver­sion by Sta­ples and crew. “Won­der­ful Savior” is sung a cap­pella by Sta­ples and her backup singers. This one has some truly nasty dis­torted gui­tar by Holm­strom.

And then there’s “In Christ There Is No East or West.” This is done as a lilt­ing folk-rocker, an un­usual ar­range­ment for this al­bum. But it’s an emo­tional stand­out — sweet-spir­ited, straight­for­ward, and invit­ing, yet sung with Sta­ples’ aura of know­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Sta­ples sings sev­eral sec­u­lar num­bers writ­ten by well-known song­writ­ers. There’s an ob­scure Randy New­man song called “Los­ing You,” which is slow, somber, and bluesy — it starts out with “I was a fool with my money, I lost ev­ery dime.” Sta­ples does a Cree­dence Clear­wa­ter Re­vival tune, John Fogerty’s “Wrote a Song for Ev­ery­one,” which, like most of The Sta­ple Singers’ pop hits, sounds like it’s a gospel song with­out men­tion­ing God, Je­sus, or church. Sta­ples goes down to New Or­leans for Allen Tous­saint’s “Last Train.”

And there are a cou­ple of songs by Tweedy — the ti­tle cut and a sur­pris­ingly funky track called “Only the Lord Knows.” It’s a song about be­ing con­fused and mis­trust­ful in the mod­ern world. “Only the Lord knows, and he ain’t you,” goes the re­frain.

One of my fa­vorite tunes here is a dandy cover of “We’re Gonna Make It,” a Lit­tle Mil­ton soul hit from the ’60s. The lyrics are sec­u­lar, but they have a poignant mes­sage about faith in times of eco­nomic hard­ship: “We’re gonna make it, I know we will.”

What I love about Sta­ples is that she is unswerv­ingly pos­i­tive and in­spi­ra­tional with­out ever sound­ing corny or cloy­ing — right­eous, but never self-right­eous. I’ve never met the woman, but I imag­ine she could make you feel bet­ter by just be­ing around her. At least that’s how I feel when I lis­ten to her mu­sic.

Also rec­om­mended:

▼ Joined at the Hip by Pine­top Perkins &

Wil­lie “Big Eyes” Smith. Sta­ples may be over 70, but Perkins could call her “young lady.” He’s 97, and Smith is a mere lad of 74. These two blues codgers — who played in Muddy Wa­ters’ band in the 1970s and later to­gether in The Le­gendary Blues Band — can still boo­gie.

This record isn’t earth-shat­ter­ing, but its good ba­sic Chicago blues. Perkins is still play­ing pi­ano (he was play­ing at the Thirsty Ear Fes­ti­val a few years ago), but Smith is no longer beat­ing the drums (his son Kenny is do­ing that here); he’s sing­ing and play­ing harp.

Two of my fa­vorite songs here are by the two dif­fer­ent Sonny Boy Wil­liamsons. There is a good ver­sion of “Eye­sight to the Blind” by Sonny Boy II (Rice Miller). And there is “Cut That Out,” a lesser-known song by the lesser­known Sonny Boy, John Lee Wil­liamson.

But the show­stop­per here is a gospel stan­dard, “Take My Hand, Pre­cious Lord,” writ­ten by Thomas A. Dorsey. This ver­sion is far blue­sier than most of the ren­di­tions I’ve heard. But re­mem­ber, Dorsey started his ca­reer as “Ge­or­gia Tom,” a blues pi­anist who backed Tampa Red on songs in­clud­ing “Tight Like That.” For rea­sons best known to Perkins, “Pre­cious Lord” ends with a quick “Jin­gle Bells” pi­ano riff fol­lowed by “Shave and a Hair­cut.” See www.pine­top­perkins.com and www.williebigeyes­smith.com.

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