Since Johnny Cash’s reinvention of the Rick Rubin-produced American series, there has been a tendency for older musicians to go the quiet route, tossing in a mix of originals and covers in an effort to return to the basics. At this point, this approach seems formulaic, but it works, bringing the artist into a production environment suitable for an aging voice without risking any of the singer’s integrity or tarnishing the all-important back catalogue. One True Vine, the latest from soul singer Mavis Staples, does nothing to break this mold, instead opting to use the formula as a showcase for her amazingly solid vocals. The result is an album light on surprises, but heavy on the musical equivalent of comfort food.
Staples is joined once again by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who returns to the producer role he previously had on You Are Not Alone, which had Staples alternating between blues and gospel tunes. On One True Vine, the blue has been scraped away for a gospel-infused album that opens with a cover of Low’s “Holy Ghost”. It’s an interesting choice for an album-opener, especially since it was already features on another Tweedy-produced record, Low’s The Invisible Way. But Staples makes the tune her own, singing deftly over Tweedy’s acoustic-tinged arrangement. Covering a folk artist is nothing new for Staples, having performed a rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” with The Staple Singers back in 1967. More famously, she sang with The Band on “The Weight” in the The Last Waltz and even covered a Talking Heads song in the ’80s. Her bona fides are apparent when it comes to putting her own stamp on rock and folk music.
While her voice may not be what it was in her prime, Staples can still hold her own amongst her peers. She’s adjusted her abilities to fit her age while Tweedy has scaled down the music to fit her skills. It’s a perfect partnership, one that may not necessarily put ripples through the music world, but one that is well-suited for the players at hand. Ultimately, that’s what you want from a producer – Someone who’ll help create music that fits the artist’s capabilities. Take Staples’ cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get Into That.” On paper, it sounds crazy – a cover of one of the premier funk bands from a 73 year old soul singer and the leader of Wilco. But, dammit, it works, creating an acoustic funk jam that is as fun as it is joyful. Staples takes the center stage in front of a gospel background, while Tweedy just sits back and let her do the work.
There’s a strong undercurrent of faith in all of Staples’ work going back to her time as a gospel singer in her family’s church. Here, it manifests itself in ways that’ll appeal to the faithful, but are accessible to those who are here for the music rather than the spiritual underpinnings. The Tweedy-penned “Jesus Weeps” is fine, but Staples‘ rendition of Nick Lowe’s “For Celestial Shores” is something else, as she takes hold of the tune and absolutely owns it. Later on the record, “I Like the Things About Me” shows Staples returning to the themes of self-empowerment found on her classic “Respect Yourself”. Through it all, Staples still has the swagger she once held, brimming with life and an infectious joy that elevates these songs.
One True Vine may not be a game changer, but it’s playing at a level fit for a musical treasure such as Staples. The album may not seem to require your full attention, but it does its best to grab you. In an era where we’re constantly on the lookout for the newest and hottest act, it sometimes take an old favorite to remind us of the basics of the music we love. One True Vine is a nice album that may not change the world, but it might just bring a smile to your face. And sometimes, that’s all we can really ask for.
Stream One True Vine from The Guardian.