Mavis Staples may not have a voice with the kind of range and pure power of an Aretha Franklin, but she understands the ins and outs of phrasing and nuance, and brings an inimitable, gritty passion to everything she sings, even into her seventies.
She's also not afraid to walk right down the middle of the road between secular and sacred, fully aware that both the blues and gospel are really talking about the same thing -- the need to get to a better place.
She performs this delicate synthesis well on You Are Not Alone, an album that finds her teamed with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, whose production on this project is surprisingly sympathetic to Staples' strengths, and more importantly, doesn't make her sound like an adjunct participant in a Wilco album.
No, this is Mavis' show, and she grabs ahold of well-chosen covers like Randy Newman's “Losing You,” Allen Toussaint's “Last Train,” Reverend Gary Davis' “I Belong to the Band,” and John Fogerty's “Wrote a Song for Everyone” with conviction, wringing every bit of wisdom, anger, compassion, and joy out of them, while bringing a fresh perspective to traditional gospel pieces like “In Christ There Is No East or West,” “Creep Along Moses,” and “Wonderful Savior,” reminding that redemption is pretty hard work even in the best of times.
She tackles a couple of Pops Staples pieces here, too, “Don’t Knock” and “Downward Road,” making this whole set a well-rounded portrait of Mavis Staples as she stands then, now, and tomorrow.
Tweedy wrote several songs for the project, but only two, including the title track “You Are Not Alone,” appear here, and he wisely resisted any urge to overdo his sonic stamp on the album.
Most tracks feature sturdy, simple, and subdued backing that allows Staples' voice to carry the show, highlighted by reverbed guitar reminiscent of Pops Staples' trademark sound, although only enough to suggest it -- nothing here gets in the way of Mavis' voice.
You Are Not Alone is a solid outing that somehow amazingly manages to be both secular and sacred at once, and there is a stripped-down timelessness to it.
It's about love and redemption, and how each needs the other.
You Are Not Alone won Best Americana Album at the 2010 Grammys.