If ever there was an artist that could rest on her laurels it’s Mavis Staples. Honestly, reading Mavis’ bio is effectively an American history lesson; Mavis marched with Martin Luther King, Jr, performed for JFK at his inauguration and more recently for Barack Obama at the White House. Her solo career has included releases on Stax, Curtis Mayfield’s Custom label and two albums on Paisley Park in collaboration with Prince. She sang on The Last Waltz with The Band and nearly married Bob Dylan, while recordings with Arcade Fire and Gorillaz highlight her relevance to younger audiences. In fact, it’s her more recent work on a trio of albums with producer Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) via the Anti- label in the last decade that has bought Staples back into the spotlight. The nearest comparison I can make of an artist releasing such a run of impressive records at this late stage of their career - albums completely sympathetic to their legacy and character - would be Rick Rubin’s American recordings with Johnny Cash.
In 2016 the M. Ward produced ‘Livin’ on a High Note’ album found Mavis singing songs written for her by the likes of Nick Cave, Justin Vernon and a Ben Harper track ‘Love and Trust’. This collaboration with Harper went so well that he wanted to produce her and ‘We Get By’ is the result – Harper had always been a fan, growing up with the music of the Staples Singers. Harper spent time watching Mavis and her band live and he purposely made skeletal demos of the songs for the album to allow Mavis and her band to fill in the blanks. The result is an album that sounds like it could have been recorded at any time in the last fifty years and really does a great job of showcasing Mavis and her touring band. ‘We Get By’ deals with some difficult subjects and does so with positivity that is joyous and uplifting.
Recorded live at Henson Studios in LA the first thing you notice about the album is the amount of space. The album sounds terrific and everything has lots of room to breathe, so many modern albums sound cluttered as the producer tries to shoehorn in that thirty-seventh guitar track or whatever. Ben Harper has taken the opposite approach with a band, a singer and a good song. That’s all you need. Opener ‘Change’ sets things up nicely. Mavis is in fine voice while the backing vocals are fantastic but guitarist Rick Holmstrom steals the show his dark, fuzzy tone reinforces the message of the song especially during an angular, edgy solo. A message that is given a stark reality by Gordon Parks' album cover shot. ‘Anytime’ is lightly funky with Mavis sounding great, strong and husky, with the ability to phrase a note just right that comes naturally to great singers. The title track follows and Ben Harper joins Mavis in a duet which is soulful, cool and beautifully performed as their voices work really well together.
Next up is ‘Brothers and Sisters’ which signifies a definite album highlight for me. The rhythm section of Stephen Hodges (drums) and bassist Jeff Turmes lock down a groove, Holmstrom throws in some funky licks and Mavis leads the backing singers through a wonderfully timeless protest song. “We can’t trust that man” she implores and she may have a point. The following ‘Heavy On My Mind’ is the polar opposite of the rousing ‘Brothers’ as Mavis performs with just Holmstrom’s understated electric guitar for company. A case of less is more in terms of effectiveness and power. ‘Sometimes’ is equal parts church revival meeting - complete with handclaps - meets ‘Born on the Bayou’ CCR via the guitar riff and seems a little lightweight, but it’ll no doubt be a real crowd pleaser if they play it live.
The poignant ‘Never Needed Anyone’ is superb and really highlights the beauty of Ben Harper’s production choices while the strident ‘Stronger’ finds the band in full flow anchored by Hodges’ nicely open drum sound and Turmes rumbling bass. It sounds and feels organically live and Mavis is obviously completely at home with songs of faith and inspiration. The album concludes with a stunning trio of beautifully constructed and performed numbers that just ooze soul. ‘Hard To Leave’ is especially great with some really nice understated guitar parts while ‘One More Change’ finds Mavis saving one of her best vocals for last.
‘We Get By’ is a fine album from an artist who’s still looking to make a difference through her music. “I’m the messenger,” Mavis Staples says on the eve of her 80th birthday. “That’s my job—it has been for my whole life—and I can’t just give up while the struggle’s still alive. We’ve got more work to do, so I’m going to keep on getting stronger and keep on delivering my message every single day”.
‘We Get By’ is released May 24th, 2019 via Anti- and comes very highly recommended.