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Album Review: You Are Not Alone by Mavis Staples

You Are Not Alone by Mavis Staples (Anti-, 2010)

Rating: ★★★★★

Soul/gospel legend Mavis Staples has had the distinction of working with three performer/producers in the past decade.  She contributed three songs to Joe Henry’s terrific 2005 compilation I Believe To My Soul, worked with Ry Cooder on 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back, and now in 2010 finds herself paired with her most unlikely producer yet in Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.

Indeed, when news first broke that Tweedy would be producing a new Mavis Staples record to be released on Anti-, fans of both artists were probably met either with excitement, intrigue or simple curiosity as to who (in Wilco fans’ case) Mavis Staples is and who (in Mavis Staples’ fans’ case) Jeff Tweedy is.

In reality, the pairing is actually not that unusual.  Jeff Tweedy has long been a student and appreciator of roots music, and soul and gospel play an important part of music’s rich history.  Perhaps even more obvious is a shared appreciation for the music of The Band.  Mavis Staples may not have heard of Wilco or Jeff Tweedy, but when her manager sent her Sky Blue Sky, it had some very familiar qualities to her.  Staples was a good friend to The Band, having participated in The Last Waltz’s glorious retelling of “The Weight,” which featured members of The Band as well as The Staple Singers trading verses.

Tweedy could have taken many approaches in his production of You Are Not Alone, but smartly avoided putting too much of his own stamp on the album.  He even went so far as to let Staples’ touring band provide most of the musical accompaniment. The song selection is inspired, consisting of traditional gospel songs alongside songs that Tweedy undoubtedly brought to the table; some his own, others from artists who he clearly felt had a place on the album.

You Are Not Alone kicks off with a song written by Mavis Staples’ father Pops and popularized by The Staple Singers.  ”Don’t Knock” is delivered in a similar arrangement to versions listeners may have heard before, and the track is highlighted by Mavis’ vocal delivery alongside backing vocals from Neko Case collaborators Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor.  Hogan and O’Connor do a marvelous job of complementing Staples’ deep, soulful voice with their bright, angelic accents.

From the old we move into the new.  Jeff Tweedy wrote “You Are Not Alone” specifically for Staples to sing and the testament to how great a song it is, is that we can hear it both as a Mavis Staples song and a Jeff Tweedy song.  Fun fact: Tweedy has put this into his live repertoire at recent solo/acoustic shows and his version sounds terrific.  The perfect contrast to the upbeat “Don’t Knock,” “You Are Not Alone” is a slow ballad with a strong message.

Practically every track on You Are Not Alone is top-notch.  Other highlights include the traditional “In Christ There Is No East or West,” which is arranged by Tweedy to be played very much in the style of something you might hear on Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding.  Listeners hungry for more gospel revivals will enjoy “Creep Along Moses” and “I Belong To The Band.”  Tweedy delivers another original composition in “Only The Lord Knows,” more of an upbeat rocker with electric guitar peppered throughout.  There’s also a fantastic version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Wrote A Song For Everyone” that goes so far as to improve upon the original.

As a listener who appreciates both Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples’ contribution to music, I can say this is one of the best albums I’ve had the pleasure of hearing all year.  Whether other Wilco or Staples fans will respond to the album as enthusiastically as I have remains to be seen.  One thing is certain; we love Tweedy for having the courage and respect to give this project his all, and we love Staples for the very same reasons.

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