MAVIS STAPLES - If All I Was Was Black (2017) & We Get By (2019)
The year 2017 has been full of political unrest and growing racial division in the United States, but for good or ill, Mavis Staples has seen days like these before. As a teenager, she was a member of the Staple Singers, who in their days as a gospel group were close friends and allies with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the strle for civil rights was at its peak. They also experienced more than their share of violence and hostility as an African-American family band touring in the Deep South in the late '50s and early '60s. Mavis Staples was too strong to let hatred and narrow-mindedness break her when she was a twenty-something, and at the age of 78, she still isn't about to back down. Released in 2017, If All I Was Was Black finds Staples once again collaborating with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who produced the sessions and wrote the bulk of the songs, and while the lyrics tend not to focus on the specifics of the chaos that's marked the time it was made, it's definitely an album intended to speak to troubled times. As a woman of deep spiritual beliefs, Staples is the ideal vehicle for these songs, which often deal with hatred, inequality, and indifference while making clear that love and understanding have the capacity to heal America's wounded spirit. Staples' vocal style here is informed by equal parts vintage gospel and classic soul, and together they fill these messages with strength, compassion, and a much-needed sense of hope. The lyrics sometimes reflect Tweedy's usual tropes as a writer, but Staples gives them a musical and emotional force that sets them apart. Her voice is in splendid shape for a septuagenarian, still supple and able to navigate the twists of the melodies while sailing confidently over the arrangements that fuse indie rock with the feel of '70s soul. And if this set of songs is a bit short on specific answers to our problems, well, "We Shall Overcome" never explained how that would happen either. What's most special about If All I Was Was Black is the way Staples and her collaborators confront the challenges of a distraught world while filling the listener with the belief that all is not lost, that we can get past bad times and build a better future if we try. Quite simply, this is an album America needs.
Mavis Staples returns with a brand new studio album produced and written by Ben Harper. Backed by Mavis’ critically acclaimed live band, We Get By features 10 songs of longing, strength, and spirituality, presented with simplicity, grit and sublime beauty. Highlights include the buoyant, “Anytime”, the cathartic, “Change”, and the title track, an uplifting duet with Ben Harper.
One of the most resonant songs Mavis Staples has been handed since her 2000s resurgence is "Love and Trust." Staples values the Ben Harper composition enough to have put it at the top of the set list for Live in London, and emphasized it even more by sharing the performance on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2019, ahead of the parent release. With Live in London only three months old, Staples returns with another studio LP, this one written and produced by Harper. The musician duets with Staples on the reassuring title song which sounds built to be played as the back end of a medley leading with "The Weight" his role doubtlessly inspired by Pops Staples. For the remainder, Harper leaves Staples and her familiar core band to it, with Jeff Turmes' fluid, lightly bobbing bass lines emphasized a little more than they were on the 2010-2017 sessions. Harper's custom lyrics, all new, are consistent with the themes that have coursed throughout the Staples discography steadfast faith, consolation and encouragement, perseverance and progressive action. The churning "Brothers and Sisters" and gently rocking "One More Change" are particularly powerful. Harper doesn't hold back on the grim stuff, either. "Heavy on My Mind" begins with Staples in somber form, joined only by wisps from Rick Holmstrom's guitar: "We did everything we could to slow this world down/Now my love is in the ground." Staples then alludes to inhumane forms of confinement, all relevant in 2019, in similarly deep despair. Whether the songs are designed to motivate, mourn, or comfort, they're all sustenance. The everlasting potency of Staples' voice is a marvel.
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