• Mavis Staples "If All I Was Was Black"

      Mavis Staples "If All I Was Was Black"



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        Mavis Staples presents her signature hope on the taut and lively If All I Was Was Black, another collaboration with Jeff Tweedy. But it doesn’t come as naturally as it once did, as she makes clear.

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        Does Mavis Staples sound a little angry on “Who Told You That,” one of the 10 highly topical tunes on her new album? The song is less about everything that makes us angry at the moment and more about how we respond to it all, as the 78-year-old singer addresses those too timid to take a stand and take it to the streets. “We don’t want to rock the boat? Who told you that?” she asks, as Jeff Tweedy’s guitar stomps in the mud. Her voice dives deep into her lower register, and it definitely sounds like there’s some fury in her questions, as though she’s squaring off against anyone who types “thoughts and prayers” without taking the action that might answer someone else’s thoughts and prayers. Written by Tweedy, who produced three of her last four albums, the song reveals a darker, more outraged side of Staples than we usually see.

        If you’ve pissed off Mavis Staples, then you’re doing something seriously wrong. Nicknamed Bubbles for her sunny disposition, she’s been singing professionally since the late 1940s, when her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples formed a family gospel band. Her career with the Staple Singers and later as a solo artist paralleled an especially tumultuous few decades in American history, from civil rights to the first black president. Through it all she’s maintained an unwavering faith in her country and its people that shone through in ebullient songs like “Heavy Makes You Happy” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).”

        That sense of hope carries over to If All I Was Was Black, but she makes clear that it doesn’t come as easily or as naturally as it once did. It’s now something she has to practice, something she has to work at. “Don’t do me no good to pretend I’m as good as I can be,” she sings on “Try Harder,” which is addressed to herself as much as to anyone else. It might be her age, although neither her voice nor her animating spirit seems especially diminished. Or it might be the times. “Something is wrong—it’s all gone haywire,” she told the L.A. Times recently. “I get angry… This man Trump, talking about ‘Make America great again.’ Well, I don’t think America has lost any of its greatness. But we do need change, and these songs are gonna do it—they’re gonna bring us together, make us love one another.”

        If Mavis can be considered a bellwether of the national mood, then If All I Was reflects bleak times indeed. Rather than dour or defeated, her mixed emotions make these songs sound livelier, more determined, more rousing. Tweedy keeps the music taut and minimal, augmenting her solid touring band with Spencer Tweedy on drums, Glenn Kotche on percussion, and backing vocalist Kelly Hogan. Unlike their previous records together—2010’s You Are Not Alone and 2013’s One True Vine—the music is less grounded in gospel and geared more toward a loping ‘70s funk-folk, with occasional flourishes of distortion and dissonance evoking the violence she’s singing about. The guitars duel from the left and right speakers on opener “Little Bit,” as though taking sides in an argument. “Build a Bridge” rides a laidback groove that only hints at larger tensions mentioned in the lyrics: “When I say my life matters, you can say yours does, too,” Mavis sings. “But I bet you never have to remind anyone to look at it from your point of view.”

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