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Mavis Staples - We'll Never Turn Back Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    8
released:    2007
label:    Anti/Epitaph
reviewer:    John Sutton-Smith

ImageOne of the great contemporary matriarchs of old-time traditional R&B and gospel, Mavis Staples continues to burn with spiritual fire and righteous indignation. In the forefront of musical activists in the ‘60s, the Staple Singers were powerful voices for equality and change, working with Martin Luther King, Jr. in support of the civil rights movement.

On her new album We’ll Never Turn Back, a remarkable collection of songs of racial struggle in the '50s and '60s and homage to a period of great bravery and remarkable change in American society, Mavis Staples returns to that era with some very personal takes on that time, some originals mixed with many of the freedom songs that provided the soundtrack to the movement. In a sense, she is returning here to those roots, coming full circle to the songs that were so important to a social cause and its time, and which helped form her as an artist and still carry such resonance today (as she is quick to observe). It is a deeply personal account of Mavis' life from childhood days in Mississippi through the Civil Rights era, and yet universal in her continuing concerns that so many Americans are still treated unjustly.

Mavis co-wrote the title track with producer and guitarist Ry Cooder, who produced the album and also wrote the original “I'll Be Rested.” With the help of his son Joaquin, drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Mike Elizando, many of the original SNCC Freedom Singers and the South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Cooder captures Staples in a fine contemporary mix while retaining the original soul of an era and the spirit behind the songs. Opening with bluesman J.B. Lenoir's “Down in Mississippi,” and on Marshall Jones's "In the Mississippi River," Cooder turns up the voodoo percussion and slinky guitar, emulating the awful racist fear of the time, while the title song and "Jesus Is on the Main Line" turn to gospel for redemption. But it is the old-time freedom songs that come across with such verve, emotion and relevance – songs like “This Little Light of Mine,” “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Eyes On the Prize” resonate with Staples’ signature voice, still full after all these years with a soulful sensuality that comes from deep within.

"My Own Eyes" is a stand-out track written by Staples which tells of the night she spent in a West Memphis, Arkansas jail more than 40 years ago because of a racist cop, and the counsel she received from Martin Luther King. Mavis personalizes these songs in an extraordinary way – ad-libbing spoken and sung commentary on some songs, while connecting lyrics to her own life, family and incisively important issues of today.

Mavis Staples walks it like she sings it, and she sings it really well.

Cooder has created sympathetic and supportive soundscapes for Mavis' deeply heartfelt vocals on material that is not so much redefined as re-felt for our times. Like a good sermon you can hear every Sunday, Mavis Staples makes you realize these songs can be heard again and again.

Retaining the core emotion of the material and its origins while updating the sound with a supremely competent and sensitive core of musicians has allowed Cooder to, once again, create an artistic document of cultural importance that is also intensely inspiring as music.

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