FEATURED SONGS OF THE WEEK
American Flowers: Birds Of Chicago
Hope, empathy, connection: qualities in short supply in these volatile times. But roots duo Birds Of Chicago have touched a nerve with American Flowers, our Song Of The Week, a universal message in their vision of a better, kinder country.
JT Nero wrote the song for their 2017 acoustic EP of the same name, his soulful rasp dovetailing delightfully with the gospel-soaked tones of his wife, the Montreal-born banjo and clarinet player Allison Russell. Nero chose the kind of traditional folk melody Woody Guthrie might have employed.
A protest song yet not overtly political, American Flowers has been adopted by the Islamic Centre of Greater Toledo, Nero's home city in Ohio. The couple visited the mosque mentioned in the lyric on their way to a gig in the area and performed the song there.
The new Immam, Ahmad Deeb, who said the song reminded him of Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin', told the Toledo Blade: 'It meant a lot to us because there are many stereotypes and misconceptions. American Flowers represents hope, and our religion is one of hope. Music is kind of like religion. It helps break down barriers and unite and inspire.'
I was flying down the highway when it caught my eye
I was sippin' red cream soda, I was listening to Johnny Prine
And I saw that golden dome against a pink and purple sky
I was singing: Don't let your baby down
That Prine song on the car radio must have been Storm Windows. Nero was inspired to write American Flowers after seeing the great Jimmy LaFave's last concert in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before his death. The metaphor of flowers returning feeds the band's dream of a land where there is inclusion for all communities: 'I have seen American Flowers, they will bloom again.' Birds Of Chicago will be back at the Toledo centre next year to headline its cultural festival.
The official video of the song features Rhiannon Giddens on banjo and harmonies with multi-instrumentalist Steve Dawson, who produced the EP, picking deftly on acoustic guitar. On the recorded version, the Dave Rawlings-style guitar is in the hands of Milk Carton Kids' Kenneth Pattengale, who also plays on the lovely Eastern Sky.
The gifted Russell has recorded with Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla for a new collective entitled Our Native Daughters and with Luther Dickinson & Sisters Of The Strawberry Moon, another glorious collaboration. Meanwhile we eagerly await a follow-up to Birds Of Chicago's last album Love In Wartime and more songs as wonderful as the title track and Superlover.
Orson Welles: Joe Henry
When a songwriter of Jackson Browne's stature recommends the work of a fellow artist, you sit up and listen. Our Song Of The Week is the enigmatically titled Orson Welles by Joe Henry from his compelling new album The Gospel According to Water.
Henry, from Charlotte, North Carolina, is the producer of choice for an array of discerning performers but is one of America's finest yet under-the-radar composers as 15 albums testify. All but one of the 13 tracks were written in an inspired spurt, and recorded by engineer friend Husky Höskulds in just two days, after the 58-year-old had been diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer in November, 2018.
You'd expect the music to be as dark as his mood must have been ('I was paralysed with fear') but lightness and hope shine through a deeply romantic album of poems dressed as songs dealing with mortality, spirituality and love. That Orson Welles title is a mystery even to the writer. 'I don't really know why he was in the delivery system for the ideas expressed in that song, but I was very happy when he arrived,' Henry told Billboard. 'The character expresses in the line 'Moving earth and heaven marks a man' in response to the question of why 'black is on my hands'.'
There is a haunting quality to many of the tracks, no more so than on the title track. 'I respond to any music that conjures ghosts in the air,' said Henry. 'There's an Eastern philosophy that says we all need to be like water. It's about recognising water as the landscape that's also moving through your body.'
Henry, who is married to Madonna's sister, textile artist and sculptor Melanie Ciccone, invited music friends such as Rosanne Cash, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Jason Isbell and Lucinda Williams to unveil the album track by track. Browne described the beautiful Orson Welles as 'a song of resistance, defiance, belief and survival', saying he could not get it out of his head. The powerful refrain resonates:
Come the turn of story
Come the moving floor
If you provide the terms of my surrender
I'll provide the war
After intensive treatment and therapy the songwriter, thankfully, is in remission now. Artists he has produced – Rhiannon Giddens, Rodney Crowell, Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke, Allen Toussaint, Aimee Mann, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, The Milk Carton Kids, Over The Rhine, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Raitt who covered his songs on her Slipstream and Dig In Deep albums – were indebted to his creative, intellectual approach.
His own intimate album demanded to be sparse, and there are echoes of John Hiatt, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Guy Clark, John Martyn, Bob Dylan circa Shelter From The Storm, and Browne himself. The jazz-flecked accompaniments are subtle and accomplished: son Levon's reeds, Patrick Warren's keys, Englishman John Smith's lovely acoustic guitar and, gloriously on In Time For Tomorrow and The Fact Of Love, the gospel harmonies of Allison Russell and JT Nero, aka Birds Of Chicago. No bass or drums, but the music is as deep as Henry's hallowed water.
Final Days: Michael Kiwanuka
From crisis of confidence to triumph of fortitude: Michael Kiwanuka’s musical journey has come full circle. Our Song Of The Week is Final Days, a hypnotic track from the British-Ugandan songwriter’s magnificent self-titled third album.
The Guardian declared it one of the decade’s finest albums. In her excellent NME review, Elizabeth Aubrey refers to ‘a daring leap of self-affirmation’. Three years ago the vulnerable Kiwanuka, cursed by self-doubt, nearly called it quits. We are grateful he found Solid Ground.
There are nods to his heroes – Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway, Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder (the funky Rolling has echoes of Innervisions) – as the 32-year-old singer-guitarist tackles racism, civil rights, police brutality and, in Final Days, nuclear apocalypse. Despite the dark subject matter the mood is curiously uplifting and hopeful.
Final days on the planet
Here we are, on the ground
Every day, automatic
Here we are, goin' round and round and round
Paste magazine’s description of a retro-futuristic album is spot on, though I would add with a dash of dystopia. Co-written by producers Danger Mouse and Inflo, it blends and blurs the genres, with guitar, piano, slick snare and that mellifluous voice. Layers of lush orchestration are added but never to its detriment.
Yes, KIWANUKA is a capital album. That title is a defiant message to record label executives who tried to talk him into a catchier pseudonym, despite the success of Cold Little Heart which became the soundtrack for HBO series Big Little Lies, and those teachers at his London school who failed to pronounce his name correctly. ‘I won’t change my name, No matter what they call me,’ he sings on Hero. The buoyant opening track, You Ain't The Problem, publicly celebrates an end to his personal pain.
Kiwanuka told the Guardian: 'I would always just quit when things got difficult. Somebody would put me down and I’d believe them. I got tired of impostor syndrome and self-doubt. I’m living my dream. I'm in the room. And I was wasting it with thoughts of inferiority… Nobody would dream of saying that now. Now it’s cool to be from Africa and have a difficult name. But back then it was just another thing to make me potentially ashamed of who I am.’ The lost outsider has found himself.
Let's Be Us Again: The Delines
The Delines, a retro country soul combo with an after-hours aura from Portland, Oregon, delighted a packed audience at London's Union Chapel with a set mainly drawn from their latest album The Imperial. Our Song Of The Week is Let's Be Us Again, about a couple trying to reignite the flame. What might have been might still be.
Novelist and songsmith Willy Vlautin's vignettes of small-town American life feature damaged people on the margins, dealt a bad hand by the economy or love or ill luck, or all three. Lead singer Amy Boone is the perfect emotional foil for his subtle observations and jazz-tinged tales evoking lonely streets and lonelier souls. She is still rebuilding her life after a horrific accident in Austin, Texas, in 2016 when she was hit by a car and broke both legs. She has had multiple operations, skin grafts and therapy, and often has to use a stick on stage.
Most of The Imperial, their second album following 2014's acclaimed Colfax (it was lovely hearing The Oil Rigs At Night again), had been recorded by the time of the incident but the band waited for Boone to recover sufficiently to complete the project. Her tender, world-worn vocals hint at Dusty Springfield and Bobbie Gentry, with Cory Gray's keyboards and dreamy trumpet a gently rocking cradle.
Boone could be one of Vlautin's characters, not quite like those in Cheer Up Charley, Eddie & Polly, Where Are You Sonny? or the achingly sad Holly The Hustle, but someone whose life has been turned upside down in a different way. Vlautin's dignified cast of the downcast, prominent too in novels such as Lean On Pete and The Motel Life, were inspired by his gurus John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver and were mostly created before America had time to sample life under Donald Trump; a wealth of new material must surely be beckoning.
Vlautin and Boone met when Willy led the long-running, popular Richmond Fontaine and toured with Amy's sister band The Damnations. Vlautin saw the opportunity to take a vocal back seat and give his heart-tugging songs a female perspective, a new voice for the voiceless. The Delines sound is soothing to the ear even if the subject matter is not.
'What I was always hoping for with The Delines was to marry the lyrical sensibilities of the folk song with the sway of soul country ballads,' Vlautin told No Depression. 'Because that gives you that kind of dented heartbreak but it also feels good. It’s not suicide music, it’s music to kind of have a cocktail to and be just kind of blue. I think a lot of that comes from Amy’s voice and the instrumentation around her. She has that thing.'
There is genuine empathy in the lyrics which read like eavesdropped conversations among the stoic victims of austere times. The American dream as myth. 'I know the years have treated you wicked, I can see it in your eyes, And I don't know what to do,' sings Boone on the title track. 'So let's have one last drink, Hold my hand under the table before I leave.' With every bruised ballad there's a majesty in the melancholy.
Would The World Stop Turning? Emily Mae Winters
She was born in Birmingham, England, rather than Alabama but there is a Southern Americana quality to the rich voice of Emily Mae Winters. Our Song Of The Week is Would The World Stop Turning? A restless spirit of the road grapples with the weight of expectations...
What would they say back at home
If she pulled the brakes on this strife?
They'd only hate the silence
Well, this ain't a story, this is my life
The ballad is one of 10 self-penned songs on Winters' striking second album High Romance following the promise of Siren Serenade. John Parker's swooping double bass, Ben Walker's deft electric guitar and producer Matt Ingram's sparse drums enhance the soulful sway of a song full of yearning.
Even the opening track, based on a poem by 19th century Irish writer Samuel Lover, is reinvigorated by Winters' imaginative arrangement. Come Live In My Heart & Pay No Rent is a fine showcase for the impressive range of her singing. There are hints here of her early Irish roots (she was raised in Clonakilty, County Cork) as she effortlessly straddles the genres.
Winters is attempting to explore the concept of romance, inspired by the words of high role models – she was a Shakespearean actress and as a poetry devotee worked at Keats House Museum. The album title is borrowed from a Keats ode. 'You will not find a host of standard love songs,' she explains. 'You will hear songs which deal with sunshine and darkness, the movement of people, the struggles of modern technology, growing up, following your dreams, travelling and, yes of course, love in all its different forms.'
We enjoyed a lovely solo set, in support of the wonderful Molly Tuttle (a former Song Of The Week contributor with You Didn't Call My Name), at Brighton's new Chalk venue. The uptempo numbers such as the bluesy Wildfire and Gin Tingles & Whiskey Shivers provide balance on High Romance but it is the more reflective musings (try This Land and How Do You Fix A Broken Sun?) which resonate most with this listener. Power and poignancy, measure for measure.
The Ties That Bind: Allison Moorer
The unimaginable childhood trauma of her parents’ murder-suicide is the harrowing subject matter of a new album, Blood, and memoir of the same name by the American alt country singer Allison Moorer. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is The Ties That Bind.
The ache in Moorer’s soulful Southern voice is palpable:
Why do I carry what isn’t mine?
Can I take the good and leave the rest behind?
Can I let go and watch it all unwind?
Can I untie the ties that bind?
One hopes Blood will be cathartic for her and elder sister, fellow songwriter Shelby Lynne, as they learn to cope with that horrifying night in Alabama in 1986, seared in their memory, when their father murdered their mother before killing himself. Allison was just 14, Shelby three and a half years older.
The sisters have touched on the double tragedy on earlier albums but Blood marks the first sustained attempt to escort us through the turmoil. ‘I’ve been dragging your legacy, And the weight is just about taking me down.’ Out of the deeply personal comes a universal message of compassion.
Nashville-based Moorer’s songs on her 10th studio album cleverly switch the perspective among different family members. There are two from her musician father’s point of view: I'm The One To Blame is based on unfinished lyrics Shelby found in Vernon Franklin Moorer's briefcase which she put to music and read like a confession; in the other, the swampy Set My Soul Free, the struggling songwriter yearns for recognition amid his descent into alcoholism, abuse and despair.
While Moorer finds it in her generous heart to express sympathy for her lost soul of a father, it is her mother Laura and sister, especially in The Rock And The Hill and Nightlight, who are her heroes because they were her protectors. Garden & Gun magazine believe the album and memoir are 'testaments to the power of art – and of the human spirit'. Moorer tells Silas House: 'I don’t think my art would have had as many teeth as it does. I don’t think you have to necessarily suffer to make great art, but the truth is that most great art is born of it.'
From the powerfully sung, brooding opener Bad Weather to the poignant title track ('You don't have to explain, I got your blood running through my veins'), the album is sparsely produced by regular cohort Kenny Greenberg. It ends in hope and forgiveness with the moving, piano-led Heal, co-written with Mary Gauthier. ‘No matter how I try, I end up on the ground, Another orphan waiting in the lost and found.’
Moorer likes to call them her 'trouble songs'. In a highly readable journal on her website, she says: 'I’ve done a lot of time with trouble songs. I will do more. But now I’m just concentrating on that one about healing. That’s the trouble song I like most right now.' There is strong evidence here that the scars are indeed healing.
Forgotten Eyes: Big Thief
Grunge folk-rock has rarely sounded this fragile and melodic. Our Song Of The Week is Forgotten Eyes by the Brooklyn indie quartet Big Thief. Stellar songwriter Adrianne Lenker goes through the emotions with her memorable quavering delivery. As Big Thief's big year gets bigger, we may have the next Lucinda Williams in our midst.
Forgotten Eyes, typical of the dangerous milieu loved by Lenker, appears on the band's fourth album, Two Hands, their second of the year. They describe it as the 'earth twin' to the celestial U.F.O.F. of five months earlier. The 10 Lenker-penned tracks (including a co-write with guitarist Buck Meek) were recorded live under desert skies in Texas with few overdubs. Bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia complete the tight line-up for this sparse, bare-bones production.
'Two Hands has the songs I'm most proud of,' says the 27-year-old Indianapolis-born Lenker. 'I can imagine myself singing them when I'm old.' Forgotten Eyes has a Neil Young 70s feel and there are echoes of Cowboy Junkies elsewhere. Lenker grapples movingly with homelessness and the dark end of street life...
The wound has no direction
Everybody needs a home and deserves protection...
Hollow-eyed on Eddie Street, no sirens to hear
Just trash and soiled needles clawing the veneer
And no crying but it is no less a tear
On the common cheek with which we smile
Hollow-eyed on Eddie Street, is it they or is it I?
Is it me who is more hollow-eyed as I'm quickly passing by?
And the poison is killing them, but then so am I
As I turn away
The Needle And The Damage Done revisited. Lenker's complicated, unconventional back story helps to explain the disarming introspection of her songs. She was born into a spiritual commune before travelling round in a van with her nomadic musical parents, who later divorced. Lenker told Stereogum that music became a calling amid the turbulence: 'It was this thing that was always there for me that I could pour my heart into safely.' She began playing guitar at six and wrote her first song at eight. Her father took her to open mic nights when she was 12; her first album followed at 13 and dad managed her career until she broke away.
'I had a band and I didn’t go to high school, all my friends were older than me. It was pretty cool to have such a focus at that age, but also it alienated me from a lot of people my age. So I felt pretty lonely and I didn’t really have many friends when I was a kid.' Formal education was gained at Berklee College Of Music through a scholarship provided by Susan Tedeschi, singer-guitarist with the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
Lenker's lyrics can be intimate, such as the lullaby opener Rock And Sing and Wolf, edgy as with Shoulders about police brutality and her anti-gun crime message The Toy, and cosmic as in the otherworldly material on U.F.O.F. We somehow managed to miss Big Thief at London's Bush Hall recently. Two Hands captures the rugged magic of their live sets. Sample the powerful stream-of-conscious imagery of Not, a staple of their gigs with its frenzied closing guitar solo. A negative turned into a positive.
Beauty In Your Brokenness: Wildwood Kin
Their music has been described as a blend of Fleet Foxes and the Mumfords but Wildwood Kin have a delicacy and power of their own. The Devon family trio provide Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song with the beautifully titled Beauty In Your Brokenness from their eponymous second album.
Sisters Beth and Emillie Key and cousin Meghann Loney harmonise captivatingly on an intimate song about self-acceptance intriguingly inspired by the Japanese art of ‘kintsugi’ whereby damaged pottery is restored by lacquer dusted with gold and silver powder, the intricate cracks creating something even more special.
Wildwood Kin, who impressed at Glastonbury and appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test anniversary show, feature Beth on bouzouki or keyboards and Emillie on guitars; as their thoughtful songs build from an acoustic base, Meg's driving percussion and the band's gifted vocal interplay enrich an alluring folk-rock sound.
The first advanced track from the album was the bleak yet hopeful Never Alone, written after the suicide of Meg's brother, co-written by Ed Harcourt. The heart-tugger, which rhymes 'deafened by the dissonance' with 'the danger in your distance', offers a safe space to those feeling isolated and defeated or struggling with mental health issues.
When your heart is grieving
Air is hard to breathe in
Let me show you a way to a place
Where you’ll know you’re never alone
The lyrical eloquence is just as marked on the album's second single, Beauty In Your Brokenness...
I know you'll find
There's beauty in your brokenness
All you hide is on your side
You'll soon be much more than this
All in time and I know you'll find
It's a perfect design
‘It’s a reminder,’ says Beth, ‘that our imperfections, mishaps, tragedies shape us and make us who we are.’ The message is that for all our faults, we should celebrate ourselves. And so we celebrate the song.
Ghosts In The Wind: Richard Thompson
Are all songs with the word ‘ghost’ in their title haunting? Our Song Of The Week, Richard Thompson’s Ghosts In The Wind, certainly is. It was one of 34 songs performed during the guitar maestro’s 70th birthday bash at the Royal Albert Hall. We wish we had heard twice that number.
The video above is from a performance recorded live in Austin, Texas, in 2001. Crucially, at London's Fairport Convention-Albion Band reunion and grand family affair the great Danny Thompson (no relation) was on stand-up bass again, with even more magical results on a song which first appeared on his Across A Crowded Room album in 1985. Dave Mattacks (drums) and Christine Collister (harmonies) contributed hugely too.
We were among the birthday partygoers and voted Ghosts In The Wind as the highlight just ahead of Olivia Chaney’s stunning tribute to the Sandy Denny classic Who Knows Where The Time Goes, Richard’s own beautiful Beeswing and Eliza Carthy’s formidable a capella version of The Great Valerio.
Martin Carthy’s duets, Kate Rusby's tender rendition of Withered And Died, Marry Waterson poignant cover of her mother Lal's song Fine Horseman and Maddy Prior's reprise of Cyril Tawney's The Grey Funnel Line, which she recorded in 1976 with June Tabor as Silly Sisters, were all a delight; and it was lovely to hear Richard’s ex-wife Linda again even though dysphonia prevents her from flying solo. Richard's magnificent Dimming Of The Day was sung by David Gilmour but we yearned for Linda in her prime – or Bonnie Raitt, for that matter.
Teddy Thompson’s vocal trading with dad on Persuasion was gorgeous – he has a honeyed voice. Most of the concert footage is available, with varying quality, on YouTube. Richard Thompson was such a generous host, allowing most of his guests to sing his compositions as well as promote their own. The Albert Hall curfew seemed to arrive far too soon; this was a party that deserved to be an all-nighter.
Mother Tongue: Show Of Hands
Mother Tongue, a moving song written after the 2016 Brexit vote, is Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song, a standout track from the latest album by Show Of Hands. Steve Knightley formed the band in 1986 with multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer. They sound fresher than ever.
The song, about displacement, identity, nationality and sense of place, appears on their 18th studio album, Battlefield Dance Floor, and was co-written by Knightley, who once taught refugee children in London, and dhol drum expert Johnny Kalsi. The British-Asian singer Shahid Khan provides the atmospheric eastern flourishes.
It was Kalsi who suggested the song's theme in the wake of the EU referendum vote. As Knightley explains in his fascinating pass notes on the origin and genesis of his latest work, Leeds-born Kalsi said as both a Londoner and a Sikh he saw no contradiction in different connections and loyalties. Knightley crafted the lyric to Kalsi's rhythm track...
I live now under grey Northern skies
Softer grows my voice hard my eyes
I’ll kiss the earth here at your feet
Walk these hills sing in your streets
Make me whole again let me complete
Mother tongue The gift I lost when I was young
Ended even as it begun
A child of the world your only son
West Country duo Knightley and Beer are augmented by returning stand-up bassist Miranda Sykes, with her alluring harmonies, and percussionist Cormac Byrne, an impressive guest on their tour last year. This line-up boasts below-deck heft as can be heard on the swirling seafaring opener, Lost, described by Knightley as 'a maritime-themed song about masculine despair'. Again, hear the songwriter's explanatory blog.
Apart from the collaboration with Kalsi, eight of the 13 tracks are Knightley originals, including the lovely ballads Just Enough To Lose, which showcases Beer's accomplished fiddle, and You'll Get By. The prolific Knightley has been hailed as 'one of England’s greatest singer-songwriters' by broadcaster Mike Harding.
Among the covers is a stirring rendition of Leonard Cohen's sinister cold war spy tale, First We Take Manhattan, first recorded by Jennifer Warnes in 1986. The band's reimagining of Kirsty Merryn's Forfarshire, about lighthouse keeper's daughter Grace Darling and father William's rescue of nine marooned seamen from a stricken paddle-steamer which gave the song its name, is haunting as Knightley and Sykes share the call-and-answer vocals. Knightley sang on Merryn's beautiful version of the song on her debut album She And I.
'With the heartbeat and harmonies that Cormac and Miranda add, we are at last creating a sound we've dreamed of making for 25 years,' says Knightley. We look forward to witnessing the fulfilment of that dream on the band's UK tour at London's Union Chapel in November.
Dry As Sand: Madison Cunningham
We cannot resist revisiting the remarkably mature songbook of the 22-year-old Californian Madison Cunningham. Her delicate, airy but soulful voice has a powerful ally in the distinctive drive of her electric guitar. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Dry As Sand, an intoxicating piece of folk-jazz noir.
The must-hear track appears on her latest album Who Are You Now, produced in El Paso, Texas, by Tyler Chester, the multi-instrumentalist who was on the dials for her first offering, Authenticity, five years ago. Easy comparisons with her heroes Joni Mitchell and Jeff Buckley could have unnerved Cunningham but those and other influences, her blurring of genres and surprising chord changes are moulding a singular talent with a highly fertile future.
Her growing self-assurance, as a singer and innovative guitarist, has been honed by regular touring with Punch Brothers and appearances on the Live From Here radio series fronted by their captain mandolin Chris Thile, a champion of fledgling talent. Cunningham's confidence oozes in this memorable live version of Dry As Sand, co-written by Chester and drummer Jay Bellerose. The brooding mood takes a darker turn when her guitar cracks the brushed-snare calm as if Neil Young has just rocked up.
Cunningham is a fine lyricist, crafting bittersweet lines rooted in Orange County about relationships and the human condition, stories that are relatable and timeless. She has featured before in our Songs Of The Week blog with the exquisite Beauty Into Clichés. It is worth checking out her YouTube channel of weekly covers, from Mitchell and Buckley to The Beatles, whom she discovered curiously late, and Radiohead.
She tends to let her guitar dexterity guide the writing process, dabbling with licks that will shape the melody and lyric. She told PopMatters: 'The record is driven by a lot of guitar hooks, which come naturally to me. I tried to make a melody or a theme on the guitar the starting point with each song. Even with an acoustic, there's so much to be done sonically. With the electric guitar, you can mask it with so many effects and pedals. I find it enjoyable to go down the rabbit hole all those options provide.'
The other standout on Who Are You Now is a personal favourite of the songwriter, the piano-led Something To Believe In, which sounds like a page borrowed from the Great American Songbook and cover potential for kd lang or Rufus Wainwright. 'Even though I wrote this song for my husband,' she told Atwood Magazine, 'I still feel like someone is singing it to me. Sometimes the world can feel bleak, and in that line – I need something to believe in, can I believe in your love? – the sense of desperation makes me feel comforted in some way.'
I've spent my life looking
For a truth I can bear
But kingdoms are just sand
And a throne is just a chair
Dreams are born to grow up
To die, and tear, and spring again
In the summer air
Breathtaking. Madison Cunningham is someone to believe in.
Though It Hurts Me Badly: PP Arnold
Listening to the new PP Arnold album transports me to those Swinging Sixties days of Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Martha Reeves and... the old PP Arnold. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is a stirring version of her own power ballad, Though It Hurts Me Badly.
The New Adventures Of... PP Arnold celebrates the LA-born singer, once dubbed London's queen of soul, and her rich vibrato. The one-time Ikette behind Ike and Tina Turner collaborated with a host of artists, notably Small Faces, Hendrix, Clapton, Delaney & Bonnie, Bowie, Barry Gibb and Peter Gabriel. She was adored by Mods, Motown and Northern soul fans: 'I always say Paul Weller is the Modfather, I'm the Modmother.'
The album, only her fourth solo project at the age of 72, was produced at his Devon studio by Steve Cradock, the Ocean Colour Scene and Weller band bassist, who contributed a gorgeous orchestral soul-pop gem in Baby Blue (co-written with Steve Grizzle) for Arnold to remind us of her huge early hits, Cat Stevens' The First Cut Is The Deepest and Chip Taylor's Angel Of The Morning.
There's even more soul in Though It Hurts Me Badly than in the original from her 1968 debut album, and the production and backing is slicker. She reveals it was the first song she ever wrote after surviving an abusive marriage and was 'to do with my first inter-racial relationship which is pretty deep'.
She told PopMatters in an extensive interview: 'When I came to England [in 1966], I was a very shy, introverted young woman. I came from a very segregated way of living in America and then suddenly there I was, this little black girl from Watts, hanging out with the Rolling Stones. For the first time in my life, I was free. I came out of the civil rights revolution into the rock 'n' roll revolution of the UK.
'Everybody was so into the music, it was great not having to deal with that racism vibe going on in America, but it was still taboo for me and taboo for the person that I was seeing at the time. Though It Hurts Me Badly is me facing that whole thing where you know the guy's not taking you home to meet his mama.'
Arnold's new adventure, following the recovery act that was 2017's The Turning Tide, reminds you that a solo career was once in full flow until first Immediate Records' demise and later industry politics frustrated and stalled it. 'It was a whole ageism thing,' she added. 'When I look back on the '90s, I was still young, but for the industry, I was too old. I couldn't get a record deal. I got really upset. I was smart enough to set up a 16-track studio at home, so I just decided I was going to make my own record.' Resilience has been rewarded.
There are so many standouts on the new album: I Believe (written with her son Kojo), a cover of Michael Nesmith’s Different Drum that almost rivals Linda Ronstadt’s version with The Stone Poneys, two Weller compositions, Cradock sideman Jake Fletcher's lovely Daltry Street and her impassioned reading of the Sandy Denny classic, I'm A Dreamer. Torch songs abound.
Walls: Rowan Rheingans
Rowan Rheingans' solo album launch at London's King's Place was a triumph. Not only a musical one – The Lines We Draw Together is a companion to her acclaimed piece of poetic storytelling theatre, Dispatches On The Red Dress, an Edinburgh Festival highlight. Our Song Of The Week is Walls. Cerebral and spine-tingling.
The nine songs and closing tune tell the poignant story of her grandparents' experiences during 1940s Nazi Germany, the awful truth slowly unfolding with the red dress made by her great-grandmother for her grandmother to go to the village dance in Bretzenheim. The anti-war sentiment is subtly expressed, the unspeakable horror of a nearby prison camp known as The Field of Misery dramatically revealed. Racism, bigotry, identity, nationalism, the not so slow creep of the far right are topics just as relevant now. We still need to learn from history.
Derbyshire-raised Rheingans invites us to learn about her own family history through intimate songs about birdsong, waltzes, trauma and war. The Dispatches script was co-written by Liam Hurley and the album's band members – Michele Stoddart (bass), Jack McNeill (clarinet), Laurence Hunt (percussion) and Robert Bentall (electronica) – help heighten the emotional charge. If we thought her one-woman show was brave, this was theatre at its most compelling.
Rheingans explained before the Dispatches tour: 'Hidden in the folds of my own grandmother’s story, there is a profound darkness alongside a deeply hopeful message about humanity’s capacity for transformation. It feels important, in our current social and political climate of half-truths and fake news, fuelling a collective inertia that sometimes feels akin to a dangerous forgetting or misremembering of history, to share this story. I hope it will spur conversations about how we can resist the rise of the far right in constructive, supportive, creative ways. It is about the peace-making potential of telling different kinds of stories.'
Rowan's evocative banjo, fiddle and viola adorn this album but she switches to reverb electric guitar for Walls, and the effect is mesmerising. There is inventive use of pre-recorded loops throughout – What Birds Are, Lines (a line from which provides the album title), Fire, Brave and Sorrow are equally enthralling.
In What Birds Are, Rowan's fiddle urgent and ominous, the fledglings are also young airmen as 'the air becomes thick with the dust of war'. Her sustain on the word 'slaughter' is electrifying:
There's dew on the grass of a softly born morning
We always look skywards to see what is coming
First there's a rustle, an olive tree shaking
And then without warning the earth begins moving
In the achingly beautiful Walls, with its menacing rumble of war, we brush against the ghosts of that village:
I can meet you in memory
It's a human choreography
Pulls us all into a timeless land
This is where we are most lost
This is where the floor gives way
And in the hypnotic banjo-led Sorrow, where there's a bright yellow star in the night sky and on a young man's jacket, she delivers possibly the most memorable couplet:
We better make some room for sorrow
Or we will sing a darker tune tomorrow
Rheingans, whose work with sister Anna, Lady Maisery and Songs Of Separation deserve a wider audience, finds hope for the future; this is a moving celebration of resistance. Rowan juxtaposes beauty and conflict, the pastoral and the political, as her characters dance through the darkness. A true innovator of folk is soaring to a new level.
20 Million Things: Lowell George
Forty years after his passing we are still cherishing the voice and music of Lowell George, frontman of one of America's greatest bands, Little Feat. Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song is 20 Million Things from his only solo album Thanks, I'll Eat It Here, released in 1979 shortly before his death.
The album title was poking fun at extravagant eating habits which contributed to his failing health. George was becoming disillusioned with Little Feat's direction and embarked on a solo project in 1977, the group eventually disbanding. He was two weeks into a promotional tour when he died of heart failure after his weight had ballooned to 22st. The man described by Jackson Browne as the Orson Welles of rock was only 34.
'Time seems to slip away... and all I can think about is you, with 20 million things to do.' Hollywood-born George's soulful phrasing is exquisite, with typically whimsical rhymes: 'fence' and 'fender dents' with 'experience', 'mysterious wisteria' with 'air'. Curiously, this touching ballad is one of a handful of tracks to lack his glorious slide guitar.
George's quirky lyrics were probably influenced by his time with Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention. 20 Million Things, which was co-written by his stepson Jed Levy, is one of four Lowell originals, the rest of the tracks being covers. But what memorable covers: his hero Allen Toussaint's What Do You Want The Girl To Do, Ann Peebles' I Can't Stand The Rain and Rickie Lee Jones' Easy Money.
For an album lasting around 35 minutes (if you include the CD bonus track Heartache featuring Valerie Carter), the cast list of playing personnel is a staggering 40-strong led by Bonnie Raitt (for her harmonies rather than her slide guitar which echoes George's style), Chuck Rainey, Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon, Dean Parks, Herb Pedersen, JD Souther, Fred Tackett and Lowell's erstwhile Little Feat colleagues Bill Payne and Richie Hayward.
George, the son of a furrier who supplied the movie studios, began playing slide using a spark plug socket wrench rather than the usual glass or steel finger tube. My favourite example of his technique appeared on Raitt's Takin' My Time album in 1973 when they traded licks on a sublime cover of Chris Smither's I Feel The Same.
Little Feat's live shows during the Seventies remain among my greatest musical memories; the band, who reformed in 1987 and hired the accomplished singer-songwriter Craig Fuller, would not be the same without the genius of their Rock and Roll Doctor in dungarees. His solo album recalled the heights of Dixie Chicken with a new version of Two Trains. Hear that slide wailing down the track.
Ian Tasker on Lowell George's Willin'
Caw Caw Blues: Rodney Crowell
Rodney Crowell delves deep in the heart of the Lone Star State on his 18th studio album, simply called Texas. The Houston Kid has enlisted the help of some of his favourite fellow Texans, although our Song Of The Week, Caw Caw Blues, features Oklahoma's finest, country music giant Vince Gill.
Caw Caw Blues has a swampy feel and derives from a meeting between Crowell and his late friend and songwriting great Guy Clark. It was Clark who had the title after seeing a barbed wire nest made by crows at a windmill derrick museum in Amarillo. He was too ill to finish the song; over to you, Rodney. Gill, who was a frontman with Pure Prairie League in the Seventies and has recently sung with The Eagles, provides harmonies and slick guitar fills.
The lyric, with our unlikely heroes 'dodging that buckshot, singing that song', is as much a work of art as the wire nest itself:
Murder of crows, murder of crows
Two old birds make a murder of crows
Everyone knows anything goes
Ol' Heckle and Jeckle make a murder of crows
Texan guests on the album include Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Billy F Gibbons of ZZ Top, Willie Nelson, Ronnie Dunn, Randy Rogers and Lee Ann Womack with ex-Beatle Ringo Starr a notable outsider. Lovett's playful duet on What You Gonna Do Now is a highlight along with The Border (written with John Jorgenson from the perspective of a border guard with beautiful interplay between accordion and Mexican-style guitar) and the wonderfully titled Deep In The Heart Of Uncertain Texas (Uncertain is the name of a small town where Crowell once fished).
The 11-track album was kickstarted by an out-of-the-blue invitation from Starr to record at his Hollywood studio. 'It was not something I was going to turn down,' the 69-year-old Crowell told Billboard. 'Then I had a long-running conversation with Billy Gibbons, and I wrote a song [56 Fury] specifically for us to record together, and the record started to make itself. The songs were very Texas-centric and Billy said: ‘Well, there’s your title'.
'I grew up in the poor, east side of Houston,' said Crowell. 'Music was very much a part of the culture ... a lot of jukeboxes. People worked hard, menial labour jobs and on the weekends they liked to drink and cut loose. By the time I started to play, I'd play music for people to dance. When I left college and went to Nashville, by luck or maybe by divine direction, I fell into a group of songwriters with Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury and Steve Earle. I learned a lot from my fellow Texans.'
The collaborative spirit is no stranger to this singular songwriting talent.
Lake Charles: Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams is nearing the end of a world tour marking the 20th anniversary of her breakthrough, Grammy-winning album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song is the evocative country-blues track Lake Charles, a lament to a lost lover.
That old boyfriend was Clyde Woodward, a party animal who succumbed to his demons. The Texan loved Louisiana and told everyone he was from Lake Charles, Williams' birthplace. Friends scattered his ashes from Lake Charles Bridge. 'Did an angel whisper in your ear? And hold you close and take away your fear? In those long last moments.’ Oh that unmistakable southern drawl.
It took three years and four producers (Gurf Morlix, Steve Earle, Ray Kennedy and crucially Roy Bittan of E Street Band fame) to satisfy the perfectionist in Williams. But it was well worth the wait. Car Wheels, her fifth studio offering released in 1998, 20 years after her first album, is a travelogue of landmark road songs: Lake Charles, the title track, Drunken Angel, Concrete And Barbed Wire, Metal Firecracker, and Greenville, featuring harmonies by Emmylou Harris.
The daughter of a poet and literature professor, Miller Williams, Lucinda used to seek dad's approval of her songs, particularly the lyrics, and had to fight her corner when he pointed out she had used the word 'angel' in two of the tracks on Car Wheels. Drunken Angel had been written in memory of another fallen soulmate, Blaze Foley, an Austin songwriter who was shot and killed in a bar over a senseless argument. When dad suggested changing 'an angel' in Lake Charles to 'the devil' she stood her ground. But she had used up her quota of angels.
Blood spilled out from the hole in your heart
Over the strings of your guitar
The worn down places in the wood
That once made you feel so good
You're on the other side
Foley, a friend of Townes Van Zandt who wrote Blaze's Blues as an homage, is also referenced in Metal Firecracker. 'No one is safe from me and my mighty pen,' Williams said.
We'd put on ZZ Top
And turn 'em up real loud
I used to think you were strong
I used to think you were proud
I used to think nothing could go wrong
The anniversary tour, with the 66-year-old American backed by stellar guitarist Stuart Mathis and the excellent Buick 6, has reminded us just how durable those songs are and how important a songwriter Williams still is. Read my piece here on the formidable Foolishness from her influential double album of 2014, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. Williams spent the first two decades of her career 'falling through the cracks between country and rock'. That was before the rise and rise.
So Caught Up: The Teskey Brothers
You've got to hand it to the Aussies. Their Ashes cricketers aren't bad either. Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song is So Caught Up, an engaging track from Melbourne band The Teskey Brothers from their second and latest album Run Home Slow. Soul, blues, gospel, southern rock and R&B are beautifully blended.
Frontman Josh Teskey is a gifted singer whose Motown and Stax influences are splendidly showcased by a collection of 11 original songs about love and loss. His sandpaper-and-molasses vocal is coaxed along by sibling Sam's Steve Cropper-like guitar stabs and licks as their boyhood friends from the Yarra Valley, Brendon Love (bass) and Liam Gough (drums), maintain a chugging groove.
The band, building on their 2017 debut album Half Mile Harvest, form a huddle before their dynamic gigs, as if emulating their cricket heroes. 'I'll never get sick of doing this,' Josh told the Sydney Morning Herald. 'It's an amazing thing to feel the energy of a live crowd, to share the love and be in that moment. I'll never, absolutely never stop.'
These wizards from Oz have finished one world tour and soon embark on another. Catch them in the UK (we already have our tickets for Shepherd's Bush Empire in January 2020) before they get too big.
Josh, who gave up his plumbing job as the band went full-time, can croon with tenderness or crank up the volume and intensity. That alluring rasp is handled lovingly by producer Paul Butler, who has worked with Michael Kiwanuka. He flew to Victoria from San Francisco to work with the band who regarded him as a fifth member with his magic on the dials and his subtle addition of horns and keyboards.
For an uptempo taste of their sound, sample Man Of The Universe. Meanwhile, the ghosts of Otis and Wilson Pickett bump into Anderson East as Josh puts his heart and soul into the impassioned ballad, Rain. This may be the answer to the England cricketers' prayers at Lord's.
The Chain: Highwomen
Remember The Highwaymen, that outlaw country band formed in 1985 comprising Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings? Now we welcome The Highwomen: Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, stellar singers and songwriters all and on a similar mission to change perceptions. Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song is the new supergroup's stirring cover of Fleetwood Mac's The Chain.
The Highwomen's take on the 1977 classic does not appear on their eponymous debut album, due out in September. The Dave Cobb-produced LP features original songs such as advance tracks Redesigning Women and Crowded Table, which they performed on Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show, and collaborations with Jason Isbell, Ray LaMontagne, Lori McKenna and Miranda Lambert.
'Running the world while we’re cleaning up the kitchen,' goes the catchy chorus of Redesigning Women, a celebration of womanhood written by Hemby and Rodney Clawson, who blend truth and humour in an optimistic lyric. 'I love that we have songs on this album about shattering female stereotypes, a gay country love song, and songs about losing loved ones,' says Morris. That gay song is If She Ever Leave Me, written by Isbell, Shires and Chris Thomkins for Carlile to sing.
The glorious four-part harmonies, led by Carlile's formidable vibrato, are a perfect fit for The Chain, the only track on the extravagantly successful Rumours album credited to all five members of Fleetwood Mac. The Highwomen's version can be heard on the soundtrack for a new movie, The Kitchen, starring Melanie McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss, who play the wives of jailed mobsters lured into criminality by their need to make ends meet in late-70s New York.
And if you don't love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you saying
You would never break the chain
Never break the chain
The Highwomen wowed the Newport Folk Festival with their first full live concert and were joined on stage at various times by Sheryl Crow, Yola, Courtney Marie Andrews and Dolly Parton. They also performed the album opener, a reimagining of The Highwayman, renamed simply Highwomen. Carlile and Shires called on the anthem's creator Jimmy Webb who helped them rework the lyric wonderfully well. Carlile told Rolling Stone: 'We rewrote it with fates that befell women: a doctor convicted of witchcraft; an immigrant who died trying to get over the border but got the kids over safe and sound; a preacher; and a freedom rider who gets shot.'
We are The Highwomen
Singing stories still untold
We carry the sons, you can only hope
We are the daughters of the silent generations
You sent our hearts to die alone and for our nations
It may return to us as tiny drops of rain
But we will still remain
Carlile and company represent a challenge to Nashville and the country radio stations they accuse of gender bias. 'It's not a band,' she says. 'It's a movement. Anyone can be a Highwoman. It's about banding together, abandoning as much ego as possible and amplifying other women every chance we get so we can let as many through the door as possible. Shoulder to shoulder. One push, one love.'
The idea for the trailblazing band struck Shires in 2016 when she was on the road. She recalls sitting in the van listening to country radio, writing down the songs that were played, and they were largely by men. 'I started calling radio stations to ask them to play more ladies.'
The stations are already taking the hint. Morris's pop-crossover hit Girl, the title track of her second album, reached No1 on Billboard's country airplay chart, the first woman to achieve the milestone since Kelsea Ballerini 17 months earlier. 'It's a positive,' Hemby, who has penned material for Little Big Town, Toby Keith, Lee Ann Womack, Kacey Musgraves and Lambert, told Variety, 'but it's frustrating to me as a songwriter to write songs for women in country and they don't get the same shot as the boys who come in and out and we don't really know their names, even as they shoot up to No1.'
It is to be hoped The Highwomen have staying power and even expand their project to embrace a few more cowgirls. In the meantime we look forward to hearing the album. Again and again and again.
Everything Is Broken: Sheryl Crow with Jason Isbell
Everything Is Broken is an apt song title to describe these distressing times. Bob Dylan's blues-rocker from 1989's Oh Mercy is slickly covered by Sheryl Crow, in a duet with Jason Isbell, on her forthcoming album Threads and is Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song.
Broken bottles, broken plates
Broken switches, broken gates
Broken dishes, broken parts
Streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken
Everything is broken
The advanced track is a chugging foot-stomper. Crow and Isbell, both accomplished songwriters themselves, trade verses and single lines, Isbell contributing fiery electric guitar and Crow blowing a fine harp. Crow wrote or co-wrote 13 of the 17 songs for her 11th studio album.
The 57-year-old American has announced this will be her final full release but we haven't heard the last of her. EPs and one-off tracks will be made available when the muse strikes. 'People don't listen to albums any more,' she says. 'They're a little bit of a dying art form. So I feel like this is a good one to go out on.'
It is an impressive collection of collaborations: Keith Richards, Lukas Nelson & Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Chris Stapleton, Stevie Nicks & Maren Morris, James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, St Vincent, Lucius, Eric Clapton, Sting, Brandi Carlile and, eerily, the late Johnny Cash. Crow revisits her own 1996 classic Redemption Day and gives it a disturbing new twist. Cash's haunting vocal from his version, which was recorded shortly before his death in 2003 and appeared on the American VI: Ain't No Grave album, is cleverly incorporated in Crow's powerful anti-war ballad. The song, inspired by a visit to war-torn Bosnia, closes with the word freedom repeated in turn by Crow and Cash like a drumbeat or a heartbeat.
Crow says of her bold project: 'I became inspired to record an album of musical experiences with the artists who inspired me to want to be a great songwriter, musician, and producer. It is a celebration with them, and a tribute to them. Just as importantly, I wanted to work with younger artists on this record, who I believe will pick up the torch and continue to light the way for humanity with their stories and their songs for many years to come. Their music inspires me every day.'
Two of her biggest influences, Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples, join her for the swampy, bluesy Live Wire, written by Crow and Jeff Trott. Vocal interplay and Raitt's raunchy slide guitar adorn this joyous alliance. Crow regards Staples as Raitt's musical godmother. 'To say that having both of these soulful women on Live Wire is a treat would be a huge understatement.'
Crow is no stranger to Dylan covers, having previously recorded Mississippi and Tombstone Blues. Everything Is Broken concerns dislocation and disaffection, presumably in Dylan's life at the time. Oh Mercy was produced by Daniel Lanois who provided a fascinating insight into the songwriter's methodology. 'Bob overwrites. He keeps chipping away at his verses. He has a place for all his favourite couplets, and those couplets can be interchangeable. I've seen the same lyrics show up in two or three different songs as he cuts and pastes them around, so it's not quite as sacred ground as you might think.'
Columbus: Mary Black
Mary Black’s beautiful version of Columbus, written by her Irish compatriot, the late Noel Brazil, is Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song. From her ground-breaking fourth album No Frontiers in 1989, we celebrate a song of wonder and wandering.
Black, born into a celebrated musical family, topped the Irish album charts with No Frontiers, her popularity spreading to the US where Columbus earned extensive radio airplay. 'My career went from 0 to 60,' she told The Irish News.
Brazil, who died in 2001 at the age of 44 on the same day as George Harrison, wrote some of Black’s most memorable interpretations, Columbus, Vanities, Fat Valley Of Pain, Babes In The Woods and notably Ellis Island.
Brazil’s mysterious, unsettling song of wanderlust, discovery, heartache and hope calls for an ethereal voice and Black provides it perfectly. From the opening line, ‘Better keep your distance from this whale’, I was as captivated as I was when I first heard Fred Neil’s Dolphins. Brazil adds a reference to the cormorant – 'must be some thrill to go that deep'.
Black says Brazil ‘had an amazing talent and never really got the recognition I felt he deserved’. The Columbus chorus is an eloquent monument to his gifts:
So you dream of Columbus
Every time the panic starts
You dream of Columbus
With your maps and your beautiful charts
You dream of Columbus
With an ache in your travelling heart
Black's mentor, the great Christy Moore, who described Brazil as 'an extremely nervous performer and brilliant songwriter', paid his own live tribute after his death with a stirring rendition of Metropolitan Avenue, backed by Dónal Lunny and Declan Sinnott (Mary Black's collaborators on No Frontiers). Moore said: 'He recorded a number of albums before passing on – far too young. He was ill at ease with the world but I always loved to meet him.' Moore recorded another of his thought-provoking compositions, Suffocate, on his Unfinished Revolution album.
Columbus is one of the fine American songwriter Gretchen Peters' favourite tracks, which is some recommendation. Peters says she would have loved to have met Brazil and calls the Black version stunning. David Crosby's cover is engaging enough but it lacks the intensity achieved by Black, who has an uncanny ability to inhabit other writers' songs to the extent she almost part-owns them. She treats the treasured work of Jimmy MacCarthy with the same respect and determination to enhance rather than merely imitate (listen to Adam At The Window, Mystic Lipstick and No Frontiers itself).
Black explained to Irish Connections: 'I am lucky to have great songwriters behind me, but they feel the same way about me. I look at it like an orchestra performing a piece of Mozart or Beethoven. Many different people can perform the same music, but usually there is the one who really makes it happen. I won't say that I am always that one, but with certain songs I have completely immersed myself in the emotion and sentiment of the song and felt almost like it is my own.'
Columbus is undoubtedly one of those songs. We are the lucky ones.
Change: Mavis Staples
To mark Mavis Staples’ 80th birthday, Song Of The Week at Here Comes The Song is the rousing Change, the opening track from her latest and 12th studio album We Get By. America’s inadequate gun laws feel the wrath of her tongue:
Fingers on the trigger round here
Bullets flying, mothers crying
We gotta change around here
Songwriter and producer Ben Harper is her latest collaborator, a fine foil for the gospel-soul legend’s still extraordinary voice, which sounds deeper these days. Her singing is so closely recorded you can hear her catching her breath, the rasp as expressive as on previous solo recordings produced by Prince, Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy.
Harper crafted all 11 songs, helped by his intimate knowledge of The Staples catalogue down the decades. He was Mavis's most dedicated student. 'When I first started reading the lyrics Ben wrote for me. I said to myself: My God, he’s saying everything that needs to be said right now. But the songs were also true to my journey and the stories I’ve been singing all my life. There’s a spirituality and an honesty to Ben’s writing that took me back to church.'
Harper explained: 'I come from a family of Mavis fans so her music has been woven into the fabric of my life from the very start. When I got the call for this gig, it felt like my entire career, everything I’d ever written, had been pre-production for this.'
The production is sparse, the backbeat bluesy and Muscle Shoals soulful. 'With Mavis, sometimes the most important thing you can do is press record and just get the hell out of the way.' We are reminded, if we needed to be, that the mighty Mavis was in the vanguard of the civil rights movement 50 years ago when in Change she delivers the great line: ‘What good is freedom if we haven’t learned to be free?’
There's no end to the struggle that has dominated her life since those church days in the late 40s and early 50s singing the gospel truth with her singular family group The Staple Singers. But she is propelled by a deep sense of optimism too. On Anytime she revels in her survival: 'I’m rock, paper, scissors, and I'm bound to win.'
'I'm the messenger,' she says on her website. 'That’s my job – it has been for my whole life – and I can’t just give up while the struggle’s still alive. We’ve got more work to do, so I’m going to keep on getting stronger and keep on delivering my message every single day.'
The album, dedicated to sister Yvonne who died last year, tackles politics, injustice and the sense of personal loss powerfully captured by Heavy On My Mind and Never Needed Anyone. In Brothers And Sisters she sings: ‘Trouble in the land. We can’t trust that man.’ Wonder who she means? 'The news reminds me of the 60s. We’re going at the world backwards. You know we’ve got to change. And every chance I get I’m going to sing songs of change.'
Mavis is a vibrant symbol of the past with a powerful message for the present. She is still echoing the sentiment of her late father Pops’ civil rights anthem, Freedom Highway, faithfully covered by a more recent fellow pioneer Rhiannon Giddens. Pops once said of Martin Luther King: ‘If he can preach it, we can sing it.’ Remarkably, Mavis is still singing it.