Decades after her 1969 solo debut and a whopping 63 years since she joined her family in the Staple Singers, septuagenarian Mavis Staples is once again doing work that eclipses records of singers a third her age. The follow-up to 2010′s stunning You Are Not Alone, One True Vine continues her collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, a pairing that seems strange in theory but sounds utterly sweet and mutually flattering in the grooves. As before, Tweedy gets unguarded performances from Staples that have sometimes eluded more conventional producers, and Staples helps Tweedy focus on musical and emotional fundamentals in a way he hasn’t always done with Wilco.
This time around, though, the results are even more relaxed and at times experimental, as if their mutual trust had expanded even further. Unlike its resolutely traditional predecessor, her 13th solo studio album strikes a low-key tone with the disarming opening track, a definitive take on Low’s “Holy Ghost” from their Tweedy-produced album The Invisible Way, and then sticks with unadorned expression of muted moods. The results are akin to Johnny Cash’s American albums with Rick Rubin — spare but deeply spiritual, dignified but down-home. Who knew but Staples and Tweedy that gospel with simultaneously rootsy and artsy droning would work so well?
The clincher is a faithful yet liberating rendition of Funkadelic’s 1971 minor hit “Can You Get to That.” The Maggot Brain track has always been a Staple Singers record in disguise; it’s got their simple but profound karma philosophies down pat. Tweedy recreates the original’s see-sawing acoustic funk and Staples shares the mike with a swinging choir.
The original material compliments the gospel covers elsewhere with folky reverence: Tweedy’s “Jesus Wept” and the title track, a Wilco out-take, combine incorporeal and interpersonal themes, while Nick Lowe’s “Celestial Shores” looks to redemption in a sparkling afterlife. But it’s the singer’s late dad who gets in the most commanding words: Pops Staples’s “I Like the Things About Me,” a black-pride anthem the Staples sung for the early-’70s Wattstax concert and documentary, resonates even more deeply in an era where ideals of physical perfection loom in every Photoshopped image. Understated yet authoritative, Mavis proves it’s best to keep things real.