Now 68, Mavis Staples still has that lowball growly soulful swoon of a voice that can move mountains. For her first album in three years, she’s taken songs associated with the civil rights movement of the 1960s and infused them with the funky strut of syncopated surprise.
Produced by Ry Cooder with his usual earthy acoustics (he also plays guitar and mandolin), he has let the sting of the blues guitar rub up against the natural backbeat of the snare drum, thus forcing the sound to be immediate, honest and totally in-your-living- room, with dramatic alacrity. This gives Staples the room to do the unimaginable: take songs in the Public Domain, traditional songs that have been ruinously relegated to being dusty museum artifacts, and make them vital, active and alive again.
It is to her credit that she pulls this off with scowling intensity, so much so that a song like “This Little Light Of Mine,” sung in school choruses for years, can now be programmed on your iPod next to George Clinton and Prince.
For those of us who lived through the horrors of the Newark riots and the news of Civil Rights activists being murdered down south, for those of us who actually remember these songs, Staples has now been transcended by this masterwork of an album into a cross between Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin.