Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mavis Staples makes a Jeff Tweedy album

For the last couple of years, the Anti- label has been jump-starting the flagging careers of old-school soul greats like Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples with remarkable success. Their strategy is really quite simple and basically involves a bit of studio matchmaking in which a veteran performer with impeccable vocal chops is set up with a fanboy musician for whom the chance to compose songs and produce an album for an idol is a dream come true. 
If everything goes according to plan, it can be a cost effective method for a respected older artist to make an album which appeals to a much larger audience than the people who remember their 45s. To date, the series of novel cultural-collision experiments undertaken by Anti- have delighted music critics and award show juries alike. Yet in spite of all the hoopla surrounding the unusual pairings, the resulting recordings from Burke, LaVette and Staples haven't been terribly memorable. They certainly don't stand up well against the artists' best loved work of their peak years, or even the lesser known songs from the same period. That has much less to do with the singer's vocal strength or control than with the selection of repertoire, arrangements, limitations of the session musicians and the production choices.
Furthermore, now that the same scheme has been pulled numerous times, the novelty is wearing thin but that hasn't stopped Anti- from going back to the well once again for Mavis Staples' You Are Not Alone, an album of hymns and spirituals produced by Jeff Tweedy. Even by Anti- standards, it's an odd coupling since the Wilco frontman has never actually produced any recordings of note on his own and his knowledge of gospel music is questionable. Really, the only thing he has in common with Staples is a Chicago mailing address.
As for Staples, she had no idea who Wilco was when Tweedy first met her backstage after a show at the Hideout in the Windy City, but she was willing to give the recording project a shot. No doubt having her touring unit with her in the studio, joined by Wilco keyboardist Patrick Sansone and  backing vocalist of the stars Kelly Hogan, raised her comfort level considerably during sessions at Wilco's homey studio, The Loft.  
Upon hearing Rick Holmstrom's spot-on recreation of Pops Staples' trademark guitar vibrato on the album's opening reprise of the Staple Singers' fave You Don't Knock, it momentarily seemed like this unusual collaboration might work out after all. Checking the track listing, the third song was another Staple Singers' gem Downward Road which suggested that maybe Tweedy took the time to familiarize himself with Staples' definitive early recordings and would use their entrancingly eerie sound as a jump off point to create an appropriate new sonic framework for her spellbinding voice. But sadly, all hopes of Tweedy building on power and glory of the Staple Singers' Vee-Jay period for You Are Not Alone were dashed with the second track, Tweedy's own strummy title tune which signals the unfortunate descent into a hand-clapping folk mass-style singalong of frightful campfire kumbaya dimensions.
As a producer, Tweedy has the good sense to keep the arrangements spare and give the genuinely gifted singer room to move. However, many of the song choices – including album highlight tunes from Allen Toussaint and John Fogerty (either of whom would've made  a better producer of this album incidentally) – don't seem to have any real connection to Staples or the furtive Chicago gospel scene from which she arose. That's a problem for a stand-up belter like Staples who relies so heavily on the power of her conviction to connect with an audience. 
You have to wonder how Tweedy and Staples arrived at the seemingly random repertoire selections. The old Episcopal hymn In Christ There Is No East Or West for the album might appear to come totally out of left field but the choice is a telling clue which may help solve at least part of the mystery of how this whole strange project came together.
The song's lyrics were written by William A. Dunkerley (aka John Oxenham) back in 1908 for the Pageant of Darkness and Light at the London Missionary Society's exhibition "The Orient In London" and has appeared as such in various hymn books ever since. My guess is that Tweedy didn't learn In Christ There Is No East Or West in church while growing up in Belleville, but rather, the John Fahey fan probably first heard it hauntingly interpreted by Fahey on the Blind Joe Death (Takoma) album. Of course, the Fahey connection could be just a coincidence. But then, Blind Joe Death also includes Fahey's finger-picked version of another hymn called Uncloudy Day.
Originally titled Unclouded Day by it's composer Josiah Kelley Allwood, an Ohio-based minister in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ when it was written in 1879, the song later became more commonly known as Uncloudy Day and became a gospel hit when it was revamped in 1956 by – you guessed it – the Staple Singers who turned it into their signature song.
Tweedy is sharp enough to know that turning You Are Not Alone into a Fahey tribute album wasn't a surefire recipe for commercial success – however delighted his pal Jim O'Rourke would've been with the concept – but coming up with other suitably churchy numbers could be a challenge for a rock-schooled heathen out of his depth.
That is, unless you happen to have access to a copy of Lance Ledbetter's Goodbye, Babylon (Dust-To-Digital) six-disc compendium of vintage spirituals and sermons. Among the mammoth anthology's 135 songs are I Belong To The Band – Hallelujah! by Rev. Gary Davis, Creep Along Moses by the Taskiana Four and Found A Wonderful Savior by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet each of which appear in revised form on You Are Not Alone. To her credit, Staples knocks them out with such confidence and control, you'd think that she'd been singing them since childhood.
Thanks to Staples' supremely soulful voice and exceptional interpretive skill, what easily could've been a confusing hodgepodge of random Jesus-free spirituals has turned out to be an engaging showcase for an artist who, at 71, remains one of the truly great singers of our time. And while You Are Not Alone doesn't come close to Staples' finest work – for that you need to go back to the Staple Singers' Uncloudy Day and Swing Low Sweet Chariot albums for Vee-Jay along with the Stax recordings Soul Folk In Action, Staple Swingers and Be Altitude: Respect Yourself – it still makes for a more enjoyable listen than either of those two forgettable albums she did with Prince.    

Wrote A Song For Everyone by Mavis Staples with Jeff Tweedy

Mavis Staples
Goodbye, Babylon
Wilco's Numero Group mixtape

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