Album review: Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy

September 7, 2010

Album review: Mavis Staples, "You Are Not Alone" (Anti-) Rating: 3/4

At age 71, gospel and soul legend Mavis Staples is nothing short of an American treasure, and she long has been overdue for the late-career commercial and cultural resurgence -- renewed album sales, a basketful of Grammys, a new presence on television and movie soundtracks, and all the rest -- that we've often seen awarded to far lesser legacy talents. Yet while Staples has made a fine string of albums in the new millennium, including "Have a Little Faith" (which was released by the blues label Alligator in 2004), "We'll Never Turn Back" (the start of her association with the ever-hip Anti- label in 2007), and "Live: Hope at the Hideout" (2008), they've all lacked that certain indefinable "something" required to wake up a music world that's been taking her indomitable spirit and inspiring voice for granted.

Like many fans of these two stellar Chicago talents, I had high hopes for the new collaboration between Staples and Jeff Tweedy, who produced "You Are Not Alone" at Wilco's North Side loft; added guitar, bass, and vocals; brought in several of his musical pals (among them Patrick Sansone and Mark Greenberg on keyboards and Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor on backing vocals), and contributed two original tunes. Yet though I hate to say it, "You Are Not Alone" falls short of the marks required to distinguish it as a masterpiece.

Lord knows, the problem isn't Staples' singing: Her voice remains as subtle but powerful and husky but ringing as it was when she started out as the 12-year-old star of the Staples Singers. Nor is it entirely the fault of the production or the musical backing (most of which comes from Staples' regular touring band); the former is straightforward and unobtrusive, while the latter veers from gloriously fiery (witness the searing guitar solo in "Creep Along, Moses") to bland but inoffensive.‚  True, these hardly are the ingredients of unqualified brilliance, but after living with these 13 tracks through repeated listenings and trying hard to figure out why they just weren't making me more excited, my conclusion is that the material is where this collection really falls short.

Several of the covers aren't particularly powerful or especially well-suited to Staples -- "Losing You" by Randy Newman, "Wrote a Song for Everyone" by John Fogerty, and "Last Train" by Allen Toussaint are no great shakes -- and she never makes them her own. Nor are Tweedy's two tracks, the title song and "Only the Lord Knows," anything special. There are some strong moments, among them "You Don't Knock" and "Downward Road," both by Pops Staples, and the traditionals "In Christ There is No East and West," "Creep Along, Moses," and "Wonderful Savior," which is rendered a cappella. (I am not the biggest fan of super-religious gospel music -- Jesus is just alright with me -- but Staples' performances are strong enough to make me a believer.) Still, these high points all are within the artist's comfort zone, and therein lies the problem.

Intimidated perhaps by her towering talent and formidable presence -- after all, Mavis once so entranced a young Bob Dylan that he told Pops he wanted to marry her -- Tweedy pulls his punches and worries more about the weight of Staples' past than the possibilities of her present. What would this album have sounded like if she'd been backed by Wilco throughout, pouring her heart into traditional material that was reinterpreted in the manner of what Wilco did with Woody Guthrie on the two "Mermaid Avenue" albums? Or what if the song choices had been more unconventional, in the model of the Rick Rubin/Johnny Cash collaborations?

Unfortunately, "You Are Not Alone" plays it way too safe, and that makes for a fine record, but not the extraordinary one that we could have gotten and which Staples deserves.