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Published on July 11th, 2019 | by voxx

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Mavis Staples – We Get By

Mavis is back: she’s angry and she wants change…

Outside looking in, the Gordon Parks image used on the cover of Mavis Staples’ We Get By, couldn’t be more pointed – six African-American children staring through a high wire fence at white families enjoying a youngsters’ playground. Taken in Mobile, Alabama in 1956, the photo still evokes the exclusion and inequality that are pillars of racism. And for just as long, Mavis’s voice and music have been chipping away at those pillars through The Staple Singers’ gospel polemics of the ’50 and ’60s, the fiercer, uplifting Southern soul of their late-’60s and ’70s Stax years, and the quietly steadfast outrage expressed in her past four or five solo albums.

Impressively, as Mavis approaches her 80th birthday, her work keeps getting better. We Get By is her sixth studio album for Anti-, a sequence that hit its stride with the three Jeff Tweedy-produced sets since 2010. Now Ben Harper, a 2019 Grammy nominee, writes and produces the 11 songs here: warm, lean ballads, bulky midtempo struts and gospel shouts, most with the urgent and pertinent lyrics that have been a feature of her current music and of those imperishable legacy recordings with her late father, Pops, and The Staple Singers.

Mavis’s voice is still strong and convincing, her raspy contralto framed by a well-established studio band in which guitarist Rick Holmstrom, more than ever, channels Pops’s distinctive sound. With drummer Stephen Hodges and Jeff Turmes on bass, it’s a rhythm section that comforts, coaxes and boosts. Mavis is pretty outraged from the start. Guitar-driven boogie opener ‘Change’ sets an agenda to right wrongs – social, racial, political – urging everyone to the polls with a direct instruction: “X is the letter, blue is the colour, we gotta change around here.”

With its echo of The Impressions’ ‘People Get Ready’, and a very Pops-like guitar, Mavis performs the title track with an even greater urgency, supported by Donny Gerrard’s vocal on a lyric that implies “we’ll manage”, getting by “with a smile on our face…with help from our kin… we get by”. But ‘getting by’ is no life: as next track Brothers And Sisters warns, “Trouble in the land/Can’t trust that man… Something’s got to give.”

The uptempo ‘Sometime’ takes Mavis to church, and we’re still there during the sombre contemplation of ‘Never Needed Anyone’ – as with gospel-rooted singers, her “anyone” could mean her partner, or her God. The passing of both Pops and sister/companion Yvonne has lent a sense of loss and impermanence: “Now all that we are is the living ghost of our youth…” and that’s echoed by the ballad Hard To Leave – “grab a hold of the days before the days grab hold of you…”.

Group vocals mirroring the Stax years bolster ‘Stronger’, a meaty track driven by guitar, until We Get By ends where it began, with hope and a demand for better in the it’s-too-late-to-stop-now message on ‘One More Change To Make’: “I’ve got one more change to make”, “one more step to take”, “one more chain to break”.

- By Jake White


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