May 20, 2019 Mavis Staples – We Get By (Album Review)
Getting by with some help from her equally talented friends, the exceptional Mavis Staples celebrates her 80th birthday in style with We Get By, which arrives on Friday, May 24th, 2019, thanks to ANTI- Records.
What does one say about the living legend, vocal powerhouse, and multiple Grammy Award-winning Mavis Staples? The talented R&B as well as Gospel singer, along with civil rights activist, is an inductee into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 1999) and the Blues Hall of Fame (in 2017). As a member of her family’s The Staples Singers, known lovingly as “God’s greatest hit-makers,” she released some twenty-six albums between 1959 and 1984, and was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2018. This, of course, does not even include her inspired solo career, which has delivered thirteen albums over the past five decades—including 1969’s Mavis Staples and, most recently, 2017’s If All I Was Was Black. Let’s be honest here, this paragraph hardly comes close to summarizing Staples’ contributions to the world of music and beyond.
With the country more divided than ever, the time is ripe for a new offering from Miss Staples. Produced and written by the phenomenally-talented, Grammy Award-winning Ben Harper, Staples’ fourteenth solo album, We Get By, is composed of 11 original tracks intended to offer love, hope, and history during this politically divided era. To illustrate this visually, the album’s cover features the moving photograph “Outside Looking In” by civil rights Documentarian Gordon Parks, a powerful selection from his 1956 photo essay in Life titled The Restraints: Open and Hidden.
We Get By kicks off to some talented blues guitar work on “Change.” An emphatic reminder that change is necessary, the song chugs along at a steady pace to “say it loud, say it clear!” An overall magnificent representation of a moving collection of tracks that seek to inspire, Staples’ gloriously gritty and impassioned vocals nudge us with the hard questions, such as “What good is freedom if we haven’t learned to be free?”
Next, Staples and her band—Guitarist Rick Holmstrom, Bassist Jeff Turmes, Drummer Stephen Hodges, Vocalist Donny Gerrard, and Backing Vocalists C.C. White and Laura Mace—take a bespelling, funky little side-step into “Anytime.” A track that will have you sashaying your hips gently as Staples sets a languid pace, here her incomparable vocal is accentuated flawlessly by Holmstrom’s guitar and stellar backing vocalists White and Mace.
Pairing Staples with her producer and “baby bruh” Ben Harper, the titular “We Get By” is a beautiful promise that no matter what happens, “we get by on love and faith.” Another delicate track that goes for sonic minimalism to effectively highlight its simple but timeless message, it finds Staples dueting with Harper. Here, the pair give voice to some beautifully inspiring sentiments embedded in magnificently soul-filled sonics.
Amping up the pace and going for a bass-heavy, funkadelic approach, Staples belts out “Brothers and Sisters,” a reminder to be there for each other, be brave, and never fade away. The entire band fire on all cylinders as they deliver the grooving track with a message. Next, with a thick atmosphere and a weighty seriousness, Staples’ pensive thoughts are given life, traveling side by side with an emotive guitar accompaniment, on “Heavy on My Mind.”
An activist with an infectious smile, she bops joyfully through the upbeat prance of “Sometime,” which, much like the entirety of We Get By, invites change. A clap-and-sing-along track, Staples has a gentle way of using her powerful voice to plant an idea in her listeners’ minds, inviting that thought to grow with glee rather than violently force-feeding anyone her ideas.
The silken blanket of “Never Needed Anyone” goes for that sultry, meandering vocal that, much like the fog, travels on the littlest of cat feet across your senses to promise that Staples, she’s found the one she needs most. Similarly, amidst biblical references to the likes of Samson and Moses, she delves into “Stronger,” another promise that her love is solid—be it for a marvelous mortal or the Good Lord.
While she might not require an entire sky full of stars, Staples’ is open to taking risks to find one, and she invites love to take a “Chance On Me” in one of the album’s more delicate moments. This flows flawlessly into the equally gentle prance of “Hard to Leave,” a self-explanatory confession of the joys of companionship and a reminder to cherish the times spent with those we love.
Closing out the album, “One More Change” sets the perfect pace with sultry guitar and bass accompanying Staples as she promises that there’s always one more change to make. She digs deep with her vocals for this sizzling grand finale, offering up another impassioned and gritty performance that lingers with the listener long after its last notes fade. Again, Staples’ power to inspire lies not just in her incredible, God given talents, but in her elegant approach to guiding her listener’s toward insight and hope.
The perfect anthem for change, on We Get By, Mavis Staples—with some help from Ben Harper—crafts a collection of inspired and impassioned tracks that plant hope-filled seeds of love, devotion, and evolution in listeners’ ears, while delivering a powerful blend of perfectly performed Rhythm & Blues, Soul, and beyond. There’s no denying that We Get By represents the uppermost echelon of musical talents, but its purpose far exceeds any of this.
An album that is both timeless and yet perfectly suited to our divided times, this is a collection that shows that necessary social changes can be brought about through strength of will and love—and music with heart. Prepare to feel something! Cryptic Rock give Mavis Staples’ We Get By 5 of 5 stars.