Album Review: Sharon Jones’ ‘Soul of a Woman’ and Mavis Staples’ ‘If All I Was Was Black’

On their simultaneously released new albums, the two singers both reestablish themselves as R&B royals, though the late Jones is consumed with the affairs of love and Staples with the darkening American spirit.

MAVIS STAPLES
“If All I Was Was Black”
(Anti-)

SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS
“Soul of a Woman”
(Daptones)

Keith Richards once dismissed the popular notion that the Rolling Stones deserved their oft-given nickname, declaring that “on any given night, it’s a different band that’s the greatest rock & roll band in the world.” The term “Queen of Soul” shouldn’t be thrown around nearly so loosely, but it’s clear Aretha Franklin doesn’t have a singular hold on it as a sobriquet that merits some sharing. On any given night, Mavis Staples and Sharon Jones were, or are, America’s R&B royals, as their simultaneously released new records confirm.

Jones’ “Soul of a Woman” is being released posthumously (its release is just one day off from the first anniversary of her passing at age 60), so she’s not getting to enjoy the same extended victory lap as Staples, 78, who spends a good chunk of every year now opening for Bob Dylan. Their respective albums are quite different in style and subject matter. But the two singers have a lot in common besides their mutual gospel music backgrounds and this week’s coincidentally shared release date. Last year, they were both captured in acclaimed documentaries that figured into the awards conversation — both of which figured, correctly, that their subjects deserved titular exclamation points (“Mavis!,” “Miss Sharon Jones!”).

Another commonality: neither former gospel singer has or had much love for the president. The political climate is a distinct undertone to Staples’ “If All I Was Was Black”; although the lyrics don’t call out anyone in particular, the one-time siren of the civil rights movement recently told hometown paper the Chicago Tribune, “It’s worse than it was in the ’60s because we have this man — I don’t like to speak his name — bringing out the worst in us. … This man is not a president. I won’t call him a thug, but he acts like one.” Jones’ music is more romantically preoccupied and less socially concerned, but she may have felt the animus: Band members have said that, at the end, the cancer-stricken singer attributed the stroke that fell her a few days before her death to becoming angry while watching election returns.

So there may be some sadness or madness to go around while listening to these new albums, but what you get in the end with both is the joyful noise they picked up in their early gospel days, transplanted into even tougher times with no diminishing of their ultimate exultancy.

One of these albums means to be a complete and utter throwback, while the other courts a more contemporary feeling. The divergent approaches achieve equally enthralling results. In Jones’ case, she’s doing what she and the Dap-Kings have always done in their 15 years together — and it’s important to give them full co-credit as a band, one that has devastatingly lost their lead singer. Their m.o. is to exactly recreate the spirit, playing, and recording technology that would lead you to believe these were tracks minted in 1965, minus the vinyl crackle (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Whenever anyone else tries to freeze that style in amber, it comes off affected, but Jones’ vitality made retro feel utterly spiritually topical.

There’s nothing about “Soul of a Woman” that suggests Jones felt the end was nigh and wanted to put any last feelings down for posterity. (The idea of performers deliberately crafting a final statement tends to be a myth, more often than not, as it turned out to be when we learned David Bowie thought he had licked cancer during most of the recording of “Blackstar.”) The songs, mostly written by her bandmates, are about whether romantic love will survive, not human survival itself … although, in the tortured ecstasies of soul music, you could say they’re about one and the same.

The second half of “Soul of a Woman” features some strings-laden slow-burner ballads, but it would be a mistake to presume that these came about because of a feeling Jones was in her last days. Actually, the Dap-Kings have said, it was more the other way around. They initially approached the album with the idea of doing songs that could employ some subtle orchestration in anticipation of the singer doing some symphony shows. In the end, though, when they began to intuit that this could be her final record, they began adding the more up-tempo soul stirrers that dominate the first half, figuring that she should go out on an album that represented her full vigor, if this turned out to be a swan song. Their instincts were solid: Jones sounds like she was in full fighting form whether she’s weeping or jubilantly wailing.

“Soul of a Woman” doesn’t completely ignore Jones’ mortality. The closing song, “Call on God,” wasn’t recorded for this album — it was put down in 2007 and being saved for a gospel project that never came to fruition — but it’s the benediction that was needed for a singer who devoted most of her singing life to the church, before becoming a record-making late bloomer starting at 40. Hearing her sing that she “made up my mind to be with him all the time” almost eases the hurt of knowing that no one who’s not “with him” will get to hear a follow-up album.

Staples’ album not only doesn’t have the Dap-King Horns, it doesn’t have any horns, or much in the way of the other old-school sounds that fill out Jones’ album. Her producer, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, isn’t particularly interested in making a record that sounds plucked right out of that classic era. But neither is he adding any modern instrumental touches, either. He’s going after the barest funk-rock minimalism, building most of the songs on “If All I Was Was Black” around sturdy, sinewy rhythm guitar riffs, some of which sound vintage, some of which recall early Talking Heads’ own appropriation of soul music, recorded in bald, state-of-the-art high fidelity. It’s one of the year’s most fantastic-sounding records, even though there’s rarely anything more on it than that modestly strutting six-string, bass, drums, and Staples’ touring backup singers. A churchy organ or sax wouldn’t have sounded out of place, but you’re glad he left the grooves as bare-bone as they are.

It helps that Tweedy wrote all the songs on the album, too, the first time he’s done that in the three albums he’s produced for Staples. (He took a record off while she did her last album with M. Ward.) Previously, the Wilco auteur only wrote two or three per album, but rather than bring in any of the Nick Cave, Neko Case, or John Fogerty songs she’s done in recent years — or any gospel songs, for that matter — it seems that he wanted to write a bit of a concept record, inasmuch as all the songs refer to the current national mood, as it were. He probably wouldn’t have done that in such a hopeful way if he were writing for himself and not one of the most inspirational singers of the 20th century (and beyond), so “Black” is the perfect record to put on if you want to feel elevated and grounded at the same time in late 2017.

The title “If All I Was Was Black” suggests an album slightly more confrontational than this one turns out to be … but don’t worry; by uplifting Staples standards, this one has its dark moments. “Got a little bit out of line/My baby won’t make it home,” she sings in the tough, funky “Little Bit,” referring to a young man shot by police. Racial matters also pop up in “Build a Bridge”: “When I say my life matters/You can say yours does, too/But I betcha never have to remind anyone/To look at it from your point of view.” “We Go High” takes off from a title clearly inspired by Michelle Obama, and urges understanding and forgiveness of the less progressive forces in American life, even as Staples and Tweedy take a moment away from all the good will to confide: “I have a mind to bury them whole.”

Nonetheless, lines like “They lie, and they show no shame” and “It’s like a rainy day that never goes away” give way to “I know they don’t know what they’re doing” (echoing Christ on the cross?) and “I’m gonna open my heart to a stranger.” She’s not kidding about going high, even if her voice goes wonderfully low.

At 78, Staples may be even more vocally appealing than when her voice kept to a slightly higher range. This album is as unconcerned with matters of sensuality as it is with overt God talk (as her full-time songwriter here, Tweedy is all about the secular gospel). But with a rasp that sweet, you might find yourself developing the same crush on her Dylan famously had 50 years ago.

Album Review: Sharon Jones' 'Soul of a Woman' and Mavis Staples' 'If All I Was Was Black'

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