Nick Bollinger checks a set of custom-written social commentaries from gospel veteran Mavis Staples.
Nine years ago, the veteran gospel singer Mavis Staples, after a couple of decades in the commercial wilderness, signed to a punk-indie label and began her most consistent run of recordings since she was with her family band The Staples Singers in the 60s. And it seems to be continuing with Livin’ On A High Note. The album takes its title from a song by Memphis nouveau-roots singer Valerie June. And you’ll find songs here from other black roots revivalists like Son Little, Ben Harper and Aloe Blacc, all of whom have – to differing degrees – a handle on Staples’ traditional style.
But you’ll also find contributions from the likes of experimental indie artist Merrill Garbus, otherwise known as Tuneyards, who picks up on Staples’ affinity for social-political message songs with ‘Action’, a timely call to arms.
Staples’ other default setting is gospel, and the most explicitly Biblical song comes from Nick Cave, though there’s a typical Cave edginess in the way his ‘Jesus Lay Down Beside Me’ seems to mix the themes of Christianity and sex.
Production was overseen by the guitarist/singer M. Ward, known for his eclectic solo work, and poppier collaborations as She and Him with the actress Zooey Deschanel. But Ward’s greatest contribution here is saved for the very end of the disc, and it’s the sparest track of all: just his acoustic guitar and Mavis’s voice, and a set of lyrics Ward fashioned from a sermon by Martin Luther King. In the sixties, The Staples frequently travelled with King and performed at his rallies. Mavis had seen him just the day before he was assassinated. And she seems to pull a lifetime’s pain and hope into her performance.
Songs played: Take Us Back, High Note, Action, Jesus Lay Down Beside Me, Dedicated, Dedicated