A decent arrangement of a Mavis Staples song still towers over most any "next best thing" out there.
For most artists or bands that are lucky enough to turn their art into a full-time job, there usually comes a period where an album is released for the sake of releasing an album. The most likely culprit for this is the need to fulfill a recording contract. But in other cases, it could just to keep the momentum rolling. In many cases, these albums sound just like the circumstances in which they were recorded -- albums that had to be made as opposed to albums that needed to be made.
Getting into a predicament where you must release an album is always a risky gamble. Fortunately, for about 20 years, Mavis Staples has avoided this ugly scenario. Since the '90s, she has recorded with Prince, released a single album for three vastly different record labels (the jazz-heavy Verve, the blues-heavy Alligator Records, and the alt-leaning Slash), sometimes waiting eight years before releasing an album. This luxury of time has yielded stellar results for Staples, as each album has sounded unique and utterly natural.
Staples seems to have found a home with Anti- Records. You Are Not Alone is her third release on that label. Her first effort with the label, 2007's We'll Never Turn Back, was heavily influenced by the '60s civil rights movement, but Ry Cooder's production kept the album fully rooted in the now. The album won her a new generation of fans, which was on full display at this summer's Lollapalooza festival.
For her latest album, Staples enlisted fellow Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy. And while Tweedy may not have as much behind-the-music-board wizardry as Cooder, he does just fine getting out of Staples's way. The album is neatly divided into soulful traditional gospel covers, a few contemporary covers (Randy Newman, John Fogerty), and two original songs written by Tweedy.
Music-wise, the guitars on You Are Not Alone are unobstructive to the point that they sound like they're tip-toeing over the arrangements. The percussion varies from a light shuffle ("You Don't Knock") to a flat-footed blues stomp ("Downward Road"). The obvious instrumental star of You Are Not Alone, though, is the voice, and not just from Staples. Perhaps the best song on the album, the stunning "Creep Along" features Staples's powerful voice backed up by a baptismal-like chorus.
If We Will Never Turn Back weighed heavily on protest music, You Are Not Alone weighs heavily on gospel. The joy heard on tracks like "I Belong to the Band" and "Wonderful Savior" is absolutely infectious. And with each track hovering in the three-minute range, the album breezes by on the first listen.
If there is any complaint against You Are Not Alone, it's that its not as ambitious in scope as We Will Never Turn Back. While that album felt like it had a definite sense of purpose, You Are Not Alone is a more laid back affair and more like a great collaboration album. What it lacks in surprise, it more than makes up for in its collection of songs perfectly suited for Staples's voice. If consistency has its rewards, then You Are Not Alone is a treasure.