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Album review: Mavis Staples, 'One True Vine'

Greg Kot

12:03 PM EDT, June 24, 2013

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3 stars (out of 4)

“I looked in the mirror, what did I see?/A brand new image of the same old me,” declares Mavis Staples, reprising “I Like the Things about Me,” a civil-rights anthem written 40 years ago by her late father, Pops.

The septuagenarian gospel singer continues her late-career roll on “One True Vine” (Anti), the latest in a series of releases that is indeed fashioning “a brand new image of the same old me.” If for a couple of decades she was taken for granted, shoved to the margins of a culture that she and her family, the Staple Singers, once helped define, Staples is reaffirming her place as one of the great voices of the last half-century.

“I Like the Things About Me” is a song worth reviving, a Pops Staples’ affirmation of African-American pride that he notably performed with his daughters at the Wattstax festival in 1972 in the heart of the Los Angeles ghetto. The new version is sparse and tough, channeling the sound of the Staples’ in their first, late ‘50s incarnation on Vee-Jay Records, and infusing it with a modern edge. Producer Jeff Tweedy doesn’t try to mimic Pops’ haunting, reverb-drenched guitar tone, but instead chops up the syncopated beats and lets them kick up clouds of feedback. His teenage son, drummer Spencer Tweedy, keeps the rhythm lean, leaving plenty of room for Mavis to interact with her backing vocalists.   

It’s one of the highlights of an album stripped of fluff. Staples keeps her tone conversational, as if she were addressing a small group of friends in her living room. The atmosphere and the pace are deliberate, solemn, a touch reserved, with acoustic instruments and voices dominating. It suggests a determined march, as on “Every Step,” a testament to resilience and following a righteous path. Those tempted to stray get a wake-up call on a fine reading of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That?,” with vocalist Donny Gerrard delivering baritone counterpoint to Mavis’ lead.

She slips inside the pocket of gospel standards such as “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus),” “What are They Doing in Heaven Today,” and a bluesy, down-home version of “Sow Good Seeds.” But Staples finds this album’s center in the yearning that shivers through tracks such as Low’s “Holy Ghost” and Tweedy’s “Jesus Wept.”

greg@gregkot.com