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Album review: Mavis Staples, ‘Livin’ on a High Note’

Mavis Staples is a soul-gospel legend, but her momentum keeps building as she targets the future. She just won a Grammy for a Blind Lemon Jefferson cover, but her latest album takes her to a new plateau enlisting contemporary songwriters such as Neko Case, Nick Cave, Ben Harper, Tune-Yards, Valerie June, and M. Ward (who also produced). It’s an inspired set that frames Staples’ emotionally raw, transcendentally intimate voice in mostly spare arrangements that cut to the heart. Ward does a masterful job of simply turning Staples loose amid the positive vibrations of Harper’s “Love and Trust,” Tune-Yards’ “Action” (which even starts with some surf guitar), Son Little’s “One Love” (not the Bob Marley song, but a new one that sounds like a Ben E. King tune), and Ward’s own “MLK Song,” a stark ballad featuring his acoustic guitar backing Staples as she talk-sings words of peace by her civil rights mentor. The album feels stunningly fresh and cutting edge; expect to see it on some Top Ten lists later this year.


Essential “Action”

Steve Morse can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.