“Some holy ghost keeps me hanging on,” Mavis Staples intones over and over a loosely strummed acoustic guitar, world-weary yet resolved on the opening track of One True Vine. The halting elegance of Low’s “Holy Ghost” offers faith as an invisible force that sustains in the moments of literal and metaphoric surrender. For Staples, that faith fuels everyday living; it’s the bedrock of her second album produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
The 73-year-old gospel great, a woman who effectively soundtracked the civil rights movement with her family band the Staple Singers, first teamed up with fellow Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, three years ago for You Are Not Alone. This time, her voice is quietly mighty - heavy with gravity, but glowing with warmth – and Tweedy, who plays every instrument here but drums, matches it with nuance and simplicity. It means the record does what gospel should – lift you up.
Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy proved to be such a good match on You Are Not Alone -- the album won a Grammy in the category of Best Americana Album -- that the two opted to do it again. Not tremendously different from that 2010 set, One True Vine does involve a slightly different core lineup. Tweedy's teenaged son Spencer drums instead of Stephen Hodges, and Tweedy, rather than Jeff Turmes, handles all the bass duties (among several other instruments).
Proclaiming the merits of a gospel album from a singer whose public popularity peaked some 40 years ago and whose album is produced by a '90s alt-country singer (who, along with his son, also plays all the instruments), might normally be a tough task. Fortunately, One True Vine is a neat reminder, if any were needed, that Mavis Staples has a voice that has matured from merely outstanding to one of the most unique and perfect going today. .
The opening track on Mavis Staples’ One True Vine, her second record with Jeff Tweedy, may sound familiar. The song is called “Holy Ghost”, and it’s a lonely monologue featuring her full, beautifully controlled vocals backed by a whispery acoustic guitar strum and a judiciously unobtrusive backing choir. Written by Alan Sparhawk, it appeared on Low’s recent full-length, The Invisible Way, which Tweedy also produced.
Pop music has reached a cross-generational threshold. The stalwart artists of the past are beginning to age and pass on, while a new wave of musicians take their place. Such transitions exist in a variety of cultural contexts — politics, religion, art, sports — though pop music, which we trace back to the ‘50s and ‘60s, is only just now reaching this point.
When Mavis Staples entered the now obligatory latter day reassessment period of her career, then rather than attempting to uncomfortably move with the times or cash in on her iconic status, she simply took the hand of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and made her highly regarded 2010 album You Are Not Alone like it was no big deal. Though Staples had never been away from music – the previous decade had seen collaborations with Ry Cooder and Bob Dylan among others – it was Tweedy’s clear, precise production that brought Staples the dues she’d been owed since her days as a member of The Staple Singers back in the late Fifties. This time around the powerhouse vocalist has stuck with what’s right and kept hold of superfan Tweedy as well as welcoming his 15-year-old son and member of The Blisters, Spencer, on drums (he's excellent by the way and drum sound is cheekily prominent throughout).
“Let’s do it again!” says Mavis Staples to Jeff Tweedy in her CD notes for You Are Not Alone, their 2010 collaboration and Grammy winner in the Americana category. And so they have. And although there are continuities between that album and its sequel, One True Vine, you can’t say the gospel great and the Wilco boss repeat themselves. Once again Tweedy produces, plays guitars, bass and keyboards (his teenage son Spencer is the drummer) and contributes several new songs, including the title track.
Mavis Staples has made some of the best music of her career on her last few albums, which is saying a great deal considering the importance of her catalogue in the history of gospel and soul. Credit must surely be given to her collaborators, and having Jeff Tweedy back to produce One True Vine after their previous work on You Are Not Alone shows the natural chemistry they share. Indeed, the comfort level is obvious — for all of its darker shadings, nothing on One True Vine sounds forced.
How excited were the folks in Low, the Minnesota indie band, when they heard the divine Ms. Staples covered their "Holy Ghost" to lead off this lovely, largely acoustic album (and turned a mopey lament into a gospel slow-burner)? Produced with low-key confidence and spare arrangements by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy (who also helmed her 2010 LP), One True Vine shows there isn't much the ex-Staple Singer can't make gorgeous and lived-in. Is it too tasteful by half? Maybe, but what does she have to prove? Funkadelic's "Can You Get to That" gets a fairly orthodox turn, and the Tweedy-penned "Jesus Wept" is folk soul that can't live without your love.
It took Mavis Staples until 2011 to win her first Grammy, for the Jeff Tweedy-produced You Are Not Alone album. She has turned again to the Wilco frontman for One True Vine, which takes the previous album's premise – to introduce Staples to a new crowd by rediscovering her funk/blues roots – and strips things back even further. The mood is sombre, the pace slow-to-mid and Staples means every word she sings.
Mavis Staples didn’t truly find her voice as a solo artist until the 21st century, when she was in her sixties. That’s shocking, because she began performing in the early 1950s with her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples and her siblings in the Staple Singers, and she is one of the greatest rhythm & blues singers. Since her father’s death in 2000, however, she has released four studio albums that balance rootsy nostalgia with contemporary vitality, the last two, including the new One True Vine, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
Mavis Staples’s new album, “One True Vine,” is both a sequel and a reversal. It’s her second collection of (mostly) gospel songs produced by Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, following up their 2010 collaboration, “You Are Not Alone” (Anti-), which landed Ms. Staples her first Grammy Award (for best Americana album) in a career that dates to the 1950s.
You Are Not Alone, Mavis Staples’ first collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, was an astonishing surprise; her earlier ‘comeback’ records from the last decade had seen her relying on rootsy gospel (ahem) staples, and teaming up with the likes of Ry Cooder and Ladysmith Black Mambazo to add some extra (if far-from-necessary) authenticity to her return to recording. Alone, however, allowed her to just get on with things her way. Tweedy’s production was sparse and simple, the choice of songs – the Wilco frontman’s heartbreaking title track, moving covers of Randy Newman and John Fogerty, and the traditional material on which she had built her reputation – was inspired and, with her live band in tow, the album made for a powerhouse second act from a soul icon.