Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black (2017)

FrontCover1.jpgIf All I Was Was Black is the thirteenth studio album by American R&B, soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples. It was released on November 17, 2017, by ANTI- Records. The album was written and produced by Jeff Tweedy.

The album’s announced on September 11, 2017. The album consists of 11 songs, all of which were written by Jeff Tweedy. Staples said she hoped the album will “bring us all together as a people. That’s what I hope to do. You can’t stop me. You can’t break me. I’m too loving. These songs are going to change the world.” Tweedy described the message of the album, saying, “I’ve always thought of art as a political statement in and of itself—that it was enough to be on the side of creation and not destruction. But there is something that feels complicit at this moment in time about not facing what is happening in this country head on.”

The lead single, “If All I Was Was Black”, was released on September 11, 2017, along with the album’s pre-order. “Little Bit” was released as the second single from the album on October 12, 2017. The third single, “Build a Bridge”, was released on November 7, 2017. “Ain’t No Doubt About It” was released as the fourth and final single on November 14, 2017. A music video for “If All I Was Was Black” was released on February 12, 2018.

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The year 2017 has been full of political unrest and growing racial division in the United States, but for good or ill, Mavis Staples has seen days like these before. As a teenager, she was a member of the Staple Singers, who in their days as a gospel group were close friends and allies with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the struggle for civil rights was at its peak. They also experienced more than their share of violence and hostility as an African-American family band touring in the Deep South in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Mavis Staples was too strong to let hatred and narrow-mindedness break her when she was a twenty-something, and at the age of 78, she still isn’t about to back down. Released in 2017, If All I Was Was Black finds Staples once again collaborating with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who produced the sessions and wrote the bulk of the songs, and while the lyrics tend not to focus on the specifics of the chaos that’s marked the time it was made, it’s definitely an album intended to speak to troubled times.

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As a woman of deep spiritual beliefs, Staples is the ideal vehicle for these songs, which often deal with hatred, inequality, and indifference while making clear that love and understanding have the capacity to heal America’s wounded spirit. Staples’ vocal style here is informed by equal parts vintage gospel and classic soul, and together they fill these messages with strength, compassion, and a much-needed sense of hope. The lyrics sometimes reflect Tweedy’s usual tropes as a writer, but Staples gives them a musical and emotional force that sets them apart.

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Her voice is in splendid shape for a septuagenarian, still supple and able to navigate the twists of the melodies while sailing confidently over the arrangements that fuse indie rock with the feel of ’70s soul. And if this set of songs is a bit short on specific answers to our problems, well, “We Shall Overcome” never explained how that would happen either. What’s most special about If All I Was Was Black is the way Staples and her collaborators confront the challenges of a distraught world while filling the listener with the belief that all is not lost, that we can get past bad times and build a better future if we try. Quite simply, this is an album America needs. (by Mark Deming)

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Personnel:
Stephen Hodges (drums, percussion)
Rick Holmstrom (guitar)
Glenn Kotche (percussion)
Scott Ligon (keyboards, clavinet, guitar)
Mavis Staples (vocals)
Jeff Tweedy (guitar, bass, percussion, vocals)
Spencer Tweedy (drums, percussion)
Jeff Turnes (bass)
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background vocals:
Donny Gerrard – Kelly Hogan – Akenya

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Tracklist:
01. Little Bit (Tweedy) 3.51
02. If All I Was Was Black (Tweedy/Staples 3.55
03. Who Told You That (Tweedy) 2:48
04. Ain’t No Doubt About It (featuring Jeff Tweedy) Tweedy 3:18
05. Peaceful Dream (Tweedy) 3.20
06. No Time For Crying (Tweedy/Staples) 4.36
07. Build A Bridge (Tweedy) 3.37
08. We Go High (Tweedy/Staples) 3.26
09. Try Harder (Tweedy) 3.51
10. All Over Again (Tweedy) 1.54

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