Album reviews: Mavis Staples, Sharon Jones, America and R.E.M.

Album reviews: Mavis Staples, Sharon Jones, America and R.E.M.

Mavis Staples

If All I Was Was Black (Anti-Records)

I haven’t been checking out the Jeff Tweedy- Mavis Staples collaborations of the last few years—apparently, I have been a fool. If All I Was Was Black is a nearly-miraculous alchemy of Staples’ gospel-soul and everything Tweedy throws at her. The swampy opener “Little Bit” includes a Byrds-y raga flavor in the bridge and skronky guitar solos; the title track sounds a little like Staples fronting Crazy Horse; and twitchy Velvets-y guitar noise flutters in and out of “No Time For Crying.” Somehow, it’s all of a glorious piece. Of course, Staples’ mastery over her voice is complete, as seen when she effortlessly downshifts to match Tweedy as he brings his laid-back rasp to “Ain’t No Doubt About It.” Staples’ galvanic force provides something like sustenance in these trying times, and this album delivers it, deliciously.

Sharon Jones

Soul of a Woman (Daptone)

This final Sharon Jones album, recorded while Jones faced down a grim pancreatic cancer diagnosis, is an exultant triumph. Jones didn’t turn to downtempo reflection—Soul of a Woman is taut and intense, and her vocal performance is endlessly inventive and inspired on standout cuts like the preemptive breakup song “Pass Me By.” As usual, the Dap-Kings’ meticulous revisionism is a little distracting—I find myself thinking what they’re thinking instead of feeling what they’re doing—but nobody does retro-soul better or more flexibly, from Sunday-morning joy (“Come And Be a Winner”) to hot-buttered psychedelic soul (“You Got to Forgive Him”) to nimble, jazzy funk (“Matter of Time”). Soul of a Woman is a thrilling testament by one of the finest and most beloved singers of our time.


Heritage: Home Recordings/Demos 1970-1973 (Omnivore)

For anyone who enjoyed “Ventura Highway” and “Horse With No Name” the first thousand times but subsequently discarded America on the light rock trash heap, this terrific collection might come as a revelation. I speak from experience—as the opening “Riverside” sparkled like a country-rock version of Big Star’s “Watch the Sunrise,” my first thought was “Oh great, so now I like America?” But why resist these Air Force brats who met in England and were barely out of high school when they stormed the charts? These demos prove there was more depth to the band than its hits—but speaking of, the trio’s effortless vocal blend is on display in an a cappella version of “Horse With No Name,” and the early take of “Ventura Highway,” featuring Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine, straight cooks.


Automatic for the People 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Craft Recordings)

Following the shiny happy Out of Time, Automatic for the People was dubbed “the death album” for thematic preoccupations and general murk, the songs nearly drowning in John Paul Jones’ swirling string arrangements. Automatic has since been recognized as a classic, perhaps the last great R.E.M. record (I’m actually a Monster fan but we won’t get into that). Added features here are an oft-bootlegged live set—from a Greenpeace benefit at Athens, Georgia’s venerated 40 Watt club—and 20 tantalizing, previously unreleased demos. Few of the demos are outtakes; sadly, most are thin sketches of album tracks that mostly demonstrate producer Scott Litt’s prowess in fashioning the formidable finished works. Turns out that the live set is the more welcome bonus, a loose and fun show in an intimate home-turf setting.

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