Mavis Staples, One True Vine. The big spirit works in wondrous ways, and is always good for a solid surprise. Like when Mavis Staples paired with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy to make music together. The second album from that tag-team sounds sent from above. Staples is clearly in a league of her own as someone who can take gospel music to the street and never miss a beat, while it turns out Tweedy seems born to produce. Together they have created a modern masterpiece of how music can take the spirit for a celestial ride, often in very interesting ways, and leave listeners positively inspired. It starts with song selection that is nothing less than stunning, which includes originals from Low's Alan Sparhawk, George Clinton, Pops Staples, three by Tweedy and Nick Lowe's "Far Celestial Shore," a new classic right up there with his all-time great "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." Add three striking standards and One True Vine goes into the book as one of those albums which will surely live forever.
An obvious reason for much of this magic is the way Jeff Tweedy is able to take such a small stable of musicians and fashion the songs into something that comes across as so much more. A lot of that is because of Mavis Staples' powerful and passionate voice. She is a woman who holds on to God for a strength to thrive and survive through all kinds of trials and tribulations. As a longtime member of the Staple Singers she stood strong with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the start of the civil rights struggle in America, covered Bob Dylan songs before almost anyone else and even had huge pop hits in the early '70s with family burners on Stax Records like "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There." With Tweedy's help it is a match made in heaven. He is so adept at pulling things out of the air to fill the music with a never-ending joy it appears he's found a new calling. He even enlists son Spencer Tweedy on drums, turning the endeavor into a family affair. Mavis Staples is a mountain of soul, sings for people of all persuasions and is always ready to take you there.
Willie Nile, American Ride. If medals were being handed out for inspired perseverance, Willie Nile would be among the first to receive one. Anyone who was part of the musical explosion of the late 1970s must have felt like they'd stumbled onto the promised land. Recording contracts were plentiful, new stars were being anointed daily and, best yet, it looked like it would never end. Nile got picked by Arista Records chief Clive Davis to lead his charge from Greenwich Village rock clubs, and while he succeeded up to a point, when it stopped it really stopped. None of that matters now, because the Buffalo, New York native has made the album of his life. American Ride is a full-on supremo creation from one of America's finest singer-songwriters.
Willie Nile's reemergence started with 2006's Streets of New York, and each successive release has seen a growth spurt that rivals any rocker still rocking. But with new songs like "This is Our Time," "If I Ever See the Light," "She's Got My Heart," "People Who Died" and "There's No Place Like Home," the man takes his place next to Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Neil Young and Lou Reed as living American musical heroes. Maybe a generation younger than those, but he's filled with an amazing sense of richness and heartful resonance. It's like Nile has grabbed the energy of the Clash and mixed it with the unstoppable urgency of a man on fire to grab life and live it to the fullest. Fueled by past loss and future discovery, this veteran can take the breath away with a single line, and then deliver the promise of tomorrow like only a few others are able. With any justice watch for Willie Nile coming soon to a stadium near you. This sounds like a ride that has just begun — again.
Merry Clayton, The Best of Merry Clayton. This is someone who has labored under the spell of being a female backup singer for almost her entire career. In reality, though, Merry Clayton was a star waiting to happen. The fact that she's still waiting is likely not lost on her or all the faithful fans who've been pulling for one of the great voices of modern soul music. Sure, Clayton's singing on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" track is something which is hard to top, and the way she went on to work with Carole King, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Cocker and a hundred others shows just how versatile she is. But listening to these two solo albums made at the start of the '70s is like discovering a hidden treasure, something that should have brought forth a long, long run of hits. Starting with a cover of Neil Young's "Southern Man" all the way through the Who's "Acid Queen" accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra is one of the more revealing excursions through popular music by anyone.
Clayton's voice is full of fire and feeling, something that walks the line between rhythm and blues and rock and roll like she was born to sing both. Very few artists from that period ventured into both waters simultaneously, even though for a brief time it felt like anything was possible when it came to mixing styles freely. No doubt producer Lou Adler believed it was the voice that mattered more than what genre Merry Clayton fit. He was right, too, even if radio programmers and live audiences never quite agreed. The background session jobs keep the lady busy, and who knows, if Clayton had found a Muscle Shoals groove or someone like Jerry Wexler to zero in on her strengths things might have been different. Fortunately, these wonderful recordings survive. So whether it's "Country Road," "Suspicious Minds," "A Song for You" or "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow," no one has taken flight quite like Merry Clayton since then. Maybe she and Mick Jagger were right all along: "It's just a kiss away, kiss away, kiss away..."