You Are Not Alone
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2011, Volume 18, #1
Written by John Metzger
Tue January 4, 2011, 06:30 AM CST
Mavis Staples’ career has been long and varied. Despite her sometimes sporadic recording schedule, she has managed to maintain a relatively steady profile by working alongside artists like Prince, John Scofield, and Bob Dylan. Her output has been remarkably consistent, too, even if it hasn’t always generated the level of attention that it deserved.
Everything changed after Staples joined the Anti- family in 2007, a move that sparked a long overdue resurgence of interest in her career. She has been on quite a roll, too, as each album has led directly to her next project. We’ll Never Turn Back, Staples’ debut for the label, was produced by Ry Cooder. With its mixture of traditional material and Cooder-penned tracks, the collection encapsulated her involvement with the civil rights movement from the 1960s to the present.
While touring behind We’ll Never Turn Back, Staples performed at The Hideout, a small club on Chicago’s north side. The show was the subject of Staples’ sophomore set for Anti- (Hope at The Hideout), though the most important aspect of the evening wasn’t one that could be committed to tape: The concert provided the forum for Staples to meet Jeff Tweedy. The pair established a friendship, and with time, Tweedy demonstrated to Staples how fully he understood her work. Her latest set You Are Not Alone bears the fruit of their subsequent collaboration.
In guiding Staples through the creation of You Are Not Alone, Tweedy followed a pattern that was similar, though not identical, to the one that Cooder had employed on We’ll Never Turn Back. Like Cooder, Tweedy leaned on Staples’ legacy, though he augmented You Are Not Alone’s traditional fare with a handful of well-chosen contemporary tunes. His influence rolls prominently through some of the arrangements, such as the easy-going folk of In Christ There Is No East or West and the gritty, Stones-influenced cover of Allen Toussaint’s Last Train. Yet, instead of focusing upon the role Staples had played in the success of the civil rights movement, Tweedy designed the effort to emphasize the gospel refrains that have always been at the center of her work.
Within the context of You Are Not Alone, even the secular songs that Staples tackled assume spiritual overtones. Taken on its own, the Tweedy-penned title track offers a comforting presence to a downtrodden companion. Placed between Don’t Know and Downward Road — a pair of remade classics from Staples’ past — the tune obtains a churchly hue. Likewise, Randy Newman’s Losing You is transformed into a song about lost faith, and John Fogerty’s Wrote a Song for Everyone feels like an apology to a higher power.
For the most part, throughout You Are Not Alone, Tweedy plays his hand close to his vest, favoring conservative, old-school arrangements to bold departures. His pals — Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, and Pat Sansone — lend a hand. Their involvement, however, is a matter of convenience rather than an attempt to bathe the endeavor in cameo appearances. Wisely, Tweedy did everything he could to stay out of Staples’ way, thereby allowing her voice to shine. Like a bright, glowing light from above, she illuminates the material. In the process, You Are Not Alone becomes a salve of sorts for a country that has lost its moral compass and has found itself in economic disarray.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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