Gospel-style secular music
Candi Staton always sounds like she’s on the verge of heartbreak. Her voice has a soulful rasp that lets the listener know she understands pain and loneliness. This fact is confirmed by her real life story and the many men who have done her wrong (her tempestuous marriage to and divorce from blind soul singer Clarence Carter is well-known), but that’s not really important. Even if Staton had lived the life of Little Mary Sunshine, the ache in her vocals would make one believe that she has suffered. Just one “ooh,” “aah,” or “mmm” would turn anyone into a believer. Can I get a witness?
Perhaps that’s because of Staton’s gospel background. She toured with such luminaries as Mahalia Jackson and the Soul Stirrers during the ‘50s as a member of the Jewell Gospel Trio. She went on to solo success as an R&B singer during the ‘60s and ‘70s and earned Grammy nominations for her versions of hits like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” and Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto”. The fact that Staton could put her distinctive stamp on such signature songs by other artists reveals the depth of her abilities. Staton went back to her gospel roots during the ‘80s (after a fling as a disco diva) and then started singing soul music again in the late ‘90s. This new release shows her talents have not diminished one iota.
His Hands features a tasty assortment of material that includes country and R&B songs written and/or previously recorded by legends like Merle Haggard (“You Don’t Have Far to Go”), Charlie Rich (“You Never Really Wanted Me”), Bobby “Blue” Bland (“When Hearts Grow Cold”) and Solomon Burke (“Cry to Me”). Staton transforms each of these numbers into her own version of Southern soul through her throaty, emotional vocals. When she delivers lines like, “You were gone and now you’re back/ What do you want from me?” from Rich’s classic tune, she turns the Silver Fox’s words of accusation into a declaration of her own distress. The sparse arrangement of music behind her, mostly the strum of an acoustic guitar, reinforces this sentiment. As the song continues, the number of instruments increases (piano, organ, steel guitar, drums), as does Staton’s vocal intensity until the very end, when the singer is so overwhelmed she has to whisper the words to the last verse. This dramatic rendition conveys more feelings in a mere two and a half minutes than a two hour long opera, and each drop of emotion seems well-earned.
Staton contributes four fine self-penned tunes to the album. She understands how to build a song so that each line offers a new clue to the listener about what is going on in a relationship. Of particular merit are “I’ll Sing You a Love Song”, which concerns a woman who knows the man she loves doesn’t love her yet, but she’s going to treat him nice until he gives in, and “In Name Only”, which is about a marriage gone sour.
The highlight of the album though, is the title tune, “His Hands”, written by alt-indie star Will Oldham. (Incidentally, Oldham is not the only indie artist involved on the disc. Lambchop’s Mark Nevers produced the record and fellow bandmate Lloyd Barry arranged the horns.) Oldham uses the expression laying of hands in three different ways in this story of love, abuse, and redemption. Staton sings the lyrics about a man whose hands bring her the pleasures of love but then were used to hit her with a spirited voice. Then she elevates the passion. Staton croons that she pities the man that beat her and prays for his soul as she thanks God for his grace. She has been touched by the gentle loving hands of the Lord. The gospel trained Staton sings the lyrics with a deep conviction. She may not have written this tune, but she makes it her own. Can I have an Amen?