Shara Worden is the singer and songwriter of the indie-rock band My Brightest Diamond.
In 1990, I heard Mavis Staples’ voice for the first time. That year, I moved to a new state, a new culture, and a new high school, and I found solace in the vinyl records I checked out from the public library. One afternoon, I brought home Prince’s new album Graffiti Bridge and Mavis’ cameo appearance on “Melody Cool” caught my attention. I spent hours memorizing every dip and turn of her phrasing. At the time, I didn’t know anything else about her music, about the Staples Singers’ many classic hits in the early ’70s or her family’s role in the civil rights movement. I just knew I loved her voice and I played her song over and over again.
Twenty-three years later, Mavis’ voice still grabs my attention on One True Vine, a collaboration with songwriter/producer Jeff Tweedy, the leader of Wilco. The album starts suddenly: Mavis takes one big breath and sings the opening line of the slow tempo ballad “Holy Ghost,” backed by only reverbed vocal harmonies and a close-miked acoustic guitar; a faint Wurlitzer chimes in every once in a while. This is an investigation of faith that is not buttoned up, shiny and Sunday school slick. Not all questions are answered and somehow that seems more righteous.
At times the songs are brooding, the drum beats driving toward some inevitable end; other moments are hope-filled and express joyful confidence in the peace of the after-life. The nearly ubiquitous acoustic guitar textures conjure up ’70s Vineyard folk revival meetings, or Bob Dylan’s introduction for Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Tweedy’s slide guitar might briefly remind of an Alan Lomax field recording of a front porch performance, but before too long the sonic palette returns to the era of electricity. Indie-rock desires are satiated by distorted bass lines, by wide-vibrato Wurlitzers duetting with Mavis, or when a vintage-sounding electric guitar with “What-Is-That-Delicious-Amp-He-Is-Using?” tone sneaks in the background, hitting a quiet, high frequency for the top of your skull. One True Vinebeautifully navigates that tightrope walk between live performance and studio polish; close and far sounds are taken into serious consideration. The grit of intimate acoustic squeaks pairs with a mellotron’s distant ambient chord that drips with glorious reverb; dry high-hats and vocal stereo delays seem to reflect our experience on earth and our hope of heaven. It all jumbles together into a pile that feels like it might have hit golden ratio proportions.
One of my favorite music nerd moments on this album happens in the second song, “Every Step,” a song written by Tweedy. The rhythm guitar lick starts out in a very even 4/4 with the emphasis note on the first beat of the bar, but Mavis’ vocal melody enters on the fourth beat and resolves with the word “step” on the second beat, flipping around the accent of the guitar rhythm, in a literal demonstration of the lyrics: “Every step of the way/I found grace/If I lead or follow change my pace/I get tired, lose my way/My Lord he knows me every step of the way.” The leader and follower in the music change throughout several the sections. The shift is very subtle but it feels so satisfying.
(Small Print Mom Moment: After I had been drooling over these bass drum sounds I realized that the drummer is, um, 17-year-old Spencer Tweedy. Whoah. Son of Tweedy plays a more evenly placed high-hat than, say, James Gadson or Earl Harvin, but the restraint, tone, and groove of his playing is truly noteworthy and I felt that before I knew who was playing drums. Another side note: Six months ago, I hid the rack toms of my two-year-old son’s drum kit. I thought having too many drum choices could slow down the development of his natural musical grammar, but it seems Spencer is using only a snare, high-hat and kick for this entire record. There’s an overdubbed cymbal swell on the last song. To me, that is a lesson in working within self-prescribed restrictions. Having many choices doesn’t guarantee a better result. Maybe I should also hide my kid’s floor tom until he turns 18.)
Speaking of beats, there are times on One True Vine when the space of a single beat gets very wide, with drums pushing steady on the front side while Mavis phrases triplets on the back end. To me, that is a quintessentially American rhythmic vocabulary and a kind of phrasing that pen and paper will never be able to notate accurately. Neither will the computer ever be able to emulate that kind of performance. Beat Detective, you have no place on this album; likewise, Melodyne pitch-shifting plug-ins need not apply. The result of this non-quantized performance is that there’s a feeling of natural spontaneity on the album while still managing to place the instruments in a particular three-dimensional space. Jeff Tweedy can’t play all those instruments at the same time, so it still feels like a layered studio album, but it’s neither over-edited or sanitized.
Our culture romanticizes youth, most acutely in rock & roll. While I definitely want to hear what young Spencer Tweedy’s band, the Blisters, has to say, I also want to hear from older artists. There is something that rings true to me, that the vibratos of the background singers in the song “Jesus Wept” are so wide with age that I can’t decipher whether they’re singing major or minor chords. In another context I might complain about someone’s pitch accuracy, or their forced vocal sound, but not here. Mavis’ voice and these songs offer us a view of life from a different aspect of the human experience. To producer/singer pairings like Rick Rubin with Johnny Cash, Joe Henry with Bettye Lavette, Justin Vernon with the Blind Boys of Alabama, and most certainly the combo of Jeff Tweedy with Mavis Staples, I give two thumbs up. We need it all: the ambition, boundary-pushing, punching, rebellion, and fresh love of youth, as well as artistic voices who no longer need to prove themselves to anybody, who have the sound of history in their voices and who remain curious and adventurous throughout their lives.