The two releases in the Ear Bliss spotlight this week, one from legendary soul, gospel and R&B singer Mavis Staples and other from the band Low, share several connections. First off, each was recorded at the Wilco Loft in Chicago. The obvious second connection is that each album was helmed by Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy in the producer role. Yet another link is Staples covering a song from Low’s new album. Each is highly worthy of ears. Let’s get to it.
One True Vine
Having just turned 74 years old, the legendary Mavis Staples shows no signs of slowing down on her brand new and quite excellent new album “One True Vine.” The album follows her Grammy-winning 2010 release You Are Not Alone and finds her collaborating once again with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame who produces this record. Staples’ well-deep soulful voice is in fine form on what can best be described as a heavily spiritual affair, but without being preachy in the least. It is at times rousing and at others stripped down naked in its beauty. The album leads off with the song “Holy Ghost,” written by Low front man Alan Sparhawk, and which you’ll also find on the new Low album. With restrained accompaniment, the focus is solely on the deep, smoky and soulful voice of Ms. Staples. The burners get turned up a notch on the segueing track, “Every Step,” written by Tweedy. It is one of six tracks either written or arranged by Tweedy. Staples dips back into the 1970s on two tracks, one a funky acoustic cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” which would be right at home at the Sunday gospel sermon, and the other a dip back into the family archives with the Staples Singers’ “I Like the Things About Me.” The remaining cover comes from the pen of Nick Lowe who contributes the song “Far Celestial Shores” written specifically for Ms. Staples. Tweedy’s careful production leaves the emphasis solely on Staples and her incredibly emotive and nuanced voice, as it should be. In other words, Mavis Staples in the raw. She pays it back in spades delivering a stirring performance on this highly recommended album. Visit www.antirecords.com .
The Invisible Way
Sub Pop Records
It gets pretty cold and snowy in Duluth, Minn. Simply put, the winters can be long. The band Low – Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and Steve Garrington – has been making music there since its beginnings in 1993. “The Invisible Way” is the band’s 10th longplayer and it celebrates 20 years of making music together as a group. The album was recorded at The Wilco Loft in Chicago and produced by Jeff Tweedy. As Sparhawk tells it, “While driving though Chicago, on tour, we stopped finally to visit Wilco at their studio, The Loft. They had invited us to come check it out several times over the years, but this would finally be the day. It’s a great place—a sea of instruments in a relaxed, open working environment. It’s cool, but what really converted us was hearing the new Mavis Staples tracks they were working on: big, simple, raw, and intimate. Plans were made then and there.” The resulting album is “The Invisible Way,” an intimate, melancholic and grabbing affair is not far removed from past Low albums. The songs range from consciousness raising material with a political slant to straight-up love songs. Somewhat uncharacteristically compared to past albums, The Invisible Way sees husband and wife Sparhawk and Parker dividing the vocal leads. It gives the listener the opportunity to truly see just how beautiful a voice Parker possesses. Visit www.subpop.com .
Dan Ferguson is a freelance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on WRIU-FM 90.3.