I was going to review the new Mavis Staples album, You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. I really dig the record, but I’m no expert when it comes to gospel. But I know a guy who is. My pal Jesus Christ has been known to help out here from time to time and if anyone knows gospel, it’s the dude who supposedly inspired it. So if you want to know what Chorpenning thinks of You Are Not Alone: I think it’s a beautiful record from an amazing vocalist and I think you don’t have to be religious to like religious music. Now. If you want to know what the Son of God thinks of the record, read on…
Hey everyone, Jesus Christ here, typing away from my offices in Heaven. I have to admit that I had some reservations about reviewing the new Mavis Staples record; not because of Mavis, she’s great, but because last time Chorpenning asked me to review a record, it was Creed’s Full Circle. However, I tend to be a forgiving guy and I decided to give Chorpenning a chance to redeem himself.
Mavis Staples is a gospel singer and I know that a lot of Bollocks! readers are total heathens, so let me clear something up right now: I really don’t mind if you don’t believe in me. It’s not that important. I mostly want you to be nice to each other, even on the internet. The reason I bring that up is that I don’t want people to miss out on good, soulful music just because someone is name-dropping me or my dad. You don’t have to like 7 Seconds to dig “Stay Positive” by the Hold Steady, do you? (I show up in a few of their songs too. Which reminds me: I’ve been asked to pass on a very special message from someone up here. And that is this: every time you raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer, he raises one right back to you.)
So but anyway, I’m always happy when a younger generation can discover a performer I consider iconic. When Johnny Cash started roping in the youth with those American Recordings albums, I was the happiest guy not on earth. In America right now, there are two vocalists enjoying a sort of late period of recognition that I hope only gets bigger: Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples. And by “I hope only gets bigger” I mean, “I’m the son of God, I died for your sins, and I command you to listen to Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples.” These two women are national treasures and not nearly enough people know it.
Whether soul music (sort of a sexier cousin to gospel and the blues, although downright chaste when compared to funk) is cheesy or not depends largely on the abilities of the performer. No one questions James Brown’s authority when he says he wants to make the scene like a sex machine, but if Michael McDonald tried that shit, I’m assuming he’d be run out of town on a rail. Hold on. I just got a text message from Chorpenning. According to him, some people down there on Earth actually like Michael McDonald. That has to be a joke. The guy looks like George Lucas’s (more) evil twin and he sounds like Wonder Bread that really wants to be dipped in chocolate milk (I think you can unpack that simile on your own).
Where was I?
Oh yeah. Mavis Staples. You Are Not Alone. Produced by Jeff Tweedy, the guy from Wilco. George Carlin (who, much to his surprise, showed up here a couple years ago) once said that the best thing to come out of religion is the music and I’m guessing he was listening to Mavis Staples when he said it. Everything Mavis sings is a gospel song because she makes it feel like one, and not in the Jesus-is-gonna-save-me kinda way but in the God-is-in-this-fucking-music kinda way; we prefer the latter up here. A little less “Jesus Freak” and a little more “Come On Up to the House”, thanks. The bottom line is all truly great music is holy (so is all great romance, all great sex, all great food, and all great beer).
On You Are Not Alone, Jeff Tweedy’s job is easy – arrange some instruments and let Mavis do her thing. You’d have to be a complete musical fuck-up to make Mavis Staples sound bad (which is why Glen Ballard will never produce a Mavis Staples album), and Tweedy is certainly not that. The standouts are numerous and, in fact, I can only think of one song on the album I don’t like: “Last Train” is a little too goofy for my taste. I don’t like hearing grownups say “choo choo train” and it kinda takes me out of the album a little bit. But one bad track out of thirteen (and it’s not terrible, it’s just goofy) is still pretty awesome.
I particularly love the title track, which Jeff Tweedy wrote for Mavis. It’s a gospel song about the importance of people, and I dig that. Sure, I’m the Messiah and all, but there’s six billion of you and one of me. I know I can turn water into wine, but you guys could do some pretty great stuff for each other too. So when Mavis sings, “I’m gonna get it through to you/ you’re not alone”, I have to smile. It’s a pledge to be there for her fellow people (and yes, Sunday school kids, it can be interpreted to be saying that you’re not alone because you have God, but God’s not singin’ it. Mavis is. Little known fact: my dad can’t sing for shit), and that thread runs throughout You Are Not Alone: Mavis Staples loves her God, but she’s not about to forget about her brothers and sisters down there in the good ol’ world. “Wrote A Song for Everyone” is an obvious choice to reinforce that sentiment and maybe an obvious choice of a cover song, but what Mavis Staples does with that song is downright awe-inspiring. She makes it her own, which is what all good cover songs should do. If you’re reading this, John Fogerty, you better just sign away the rights to that one. It’s not yours anymore.
It’s easy to argue against faith when it’s being abused and used to treat other people like shit, but You Are Not Alone shows us what faith is for. Mavis Staples’ faith moves her to have faith in her brothers and sisters and it moves her to make incredibly beautiful music. There’s no arguing with that.
Jesus Christ is an infrequent but highly valued contributor to Bollocks!. According to his publicist, he’s easier to reach by song than by prayer (although you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org), he believes in evolution and not being a total dickhole to your fellow beings. His favorite album of 2010 is Nobody’s Fault But Mine, an album of duets between Nina Simone and Joe Strummer. It is only available in Heaven.