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MAVIS STAPLES  We'll Never Turn Back

MAVIS STAPLES We'll Never Turn Back

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Anti Records has just released a new record by Mavis Staples, We'll Never Turn Back. Spiritually it's right on message, full of vision and purposeful hope. Musically, this collection does turn back (on the protest music that made the Staples Singers iconic) and forward (towards the sort of production and stylistic innovation that the next generation of musical giants will stand on). What the combination of perspectives does is give the record a uniquely universal appeal, to the nostalgic civil rights veterans and curious generation XYZ fans. The genius of Ry Cooder's vision and experience makes this possible. For those who don't know: Ry Cooder is an original '60s session guitarist, often called the "6th man" of the Stones line-up. He went on to popularize an ethno-musicologist's dream of Cuban music, via the Buena Vista Social Club and the Chicano melting pot of Chavez Ravine. Mavis Staples is the original lead singer of the Staples Singers, a transformative, crossover gospel/protest group, masterminded by Roebuck (Pops) Staples that helped articulate the mission of the civil rights movement. Together they make We'll Never Turn Back a powerful album.

While this is a wonderful example of an iconic artist updated and made accessible to a new audience, the most telling cut on this record is Mavis Staples' own, "My Own Eyes." The song, about the truth to which Mavis herself bears witness, is that "we need change more than ever." Her tribute to Pops and his message of power and peace through family and community is anything but passé. The truth is the truth. The set begins with J.B. Lenoir's "Down In Mississippi." Jim Keltner's drumming is wry and angular. The vocal support of Ladysmith Black Mambazo gives the first three tracks a sense of spiritual space. Mavis herself has a limited instrument, but her spirit and message comes through in every word she sings. This is her testimony.

The SNCC Freedom Singers open Marshall Jones' "In The Mississippi River" with a heartbreaking field holler. The most startling thing about this record is the palpable rural taste it brings to your ears. Ry Cooder's inimitable slide work, and the starkness of the drum grooves give the (mostly traditional) collection a modern and timeless sound. It's the opposite of slick; it's honest. Bertha Gober wrote the title track, but the words are directly from Mavis Staples' heart. When she released Have A Little Faith a few years back, Mavis Staples reasserted her commitment to pleading for faith in a secular world. On We'll Never Turn Back she stands tall for justice.

There's a cynical risk to records like this one; that it will be seen as mere music, and "period music" at that. The cool "La Bamba" groove on "Main Line" is easy on the ears (as only Cooder can make it), and Staples soulful vocal makes your heart beat faster and your blood sizzle. No problem! The hope in a CD like this is that its beauty and charm doesn't overshadow its message. This is a very good record, and it's also important, timely, righteous and necessary. Hear what it is. Mavis Staples is all about the Jesus who dies for your freedom every day, and she has something to say.

By Dave Morgan
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