With One True Vine, Mavis Staples reprises the collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy that created 2010’s hugely successful You Are Not Alone, with even more spectacular results. The two work with an ease and assurance that allows the producer to bring out the best in Staples’ smoky, impassioned delivery.
The focus is again on gospel, with old standards including her father’s “I Like the Things About Me” (here set to a waspish fuzz bass groove) alongside specially written originals by Tweedy and Nick Lowe, and a few curve balls in the shape of eccentric cover versions. The first of these, Low’s “Holy Ghost”, opens the album with the gentle hymnal quality of the indie trio, Staples’ quiet passion set against the most discreet and unobtrusive of backings.
But the most surprising transformation is that which reduces Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That” to a folksy blend of ringing guitar and sly funk drums, with Mavis leading a low-key congregation featuring the deep, warm responses of a sepia-toned bassman.
It highlights, once again, the mutuality of influence between sacred and secular in black American music, here advocating shared principles of generosity, co-operation and devotion.
Tweedy’s own “Jesus Wept” follows a similarly bipartisan course, pivoting on the cusp of gospel and soul. Less ambivalent is a version of Washington Phillips’ “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today” which replaces the original hammer-dulcimer arrangement with a lilting organ and guitar strum, as Mavis ponders the paradise of those already crossed over.
Nick Lowe’s “Far Celestial Shores” explores the same idea, depicting boughs “heavy with fruit, and you can pick your fill”, a fresh wrinkle on the agrarian theme elsewhere underpinning songs like “Sow Good Seeds” and “One True Vine” itself.
Throughout, Tweedy’s arrangements are the soul of discretion, employing the merest suggestions of rhythm and texture to show Staples’ iconic voice to best advantage.
Download: Holy Ghost; Can You Get to That; What Are They Doing in Heaven Today; Far Celestial Shores