Mavis Staples can do no wrong. At 76, she is as vivacious and powerful as ever, and her energy is infectious and astounding. Her latest record Livin’ on a High Note is aptly titled – Staples is certainly living her best life as her best self. She still sounds amazing and has plenty to say. Joined by a prestigious array of collaborators including Neko Case, M Ward, Nick Cave, Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), Benjamin Booker, Aloe Blacc, Ben Harper, The Head and the Heart and more, it’s clear that no one passes up an opportunity to work with the legendary Staples.
High Note is a feel good record about the important things in life: love, truth, happiness, home, friendships…the list goes on. Songs like “Take Us Back” and “Love and Trust” have an old school Sly and the Family Stone sound to them. They’re perfect to dance to, lively and groovy. That vintage soul sound shows up on many of the songs on High Note, but it’s also some of Staples’ most contemporary work. The instrumental arrangements are rich and layered. “Don’t Cry” features impressive guitar solos, horns and a gradual build-up of Staples’ smoky harmonies. “Action” is bluesy and sexy with a powerful message of taking a stand. “Who’s gonna do it if I don’t?” Staples asks in the opening notes of the song. Damn straight.
These songs are protest songs, or as Staples calls them “freedom songs”, disguised as addictive, ass-shaking grooves. As she always has, Staples is promoting peace and love and unity through song, and no one can do it like her. “MLK Song” is a folky beauty, quiet and understated, but not subtle in its messaging. “If I can help somebody as they pass along/If I can cheer somebody with a word or a song/If I can show somebody that they’re traveling wrong/Than my living will not be in vain,” she sings, channeling the iconic advocate.
There’s a youthfulness to High Note, with its excitement for change and a better world. Her collaborators bring a freshness with them, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine any of the songs on this record on an Alabama Shakes album. But anything led by Mavis Staples is also bursting with wisdom. She’s had a lot of years to live and hers is a voice worth listening to.
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