Ashley Beedle, Darren Morris, et al – Mavis

May 13, 2010

I picked up this cd because I liked the cover, and put in on because I recognized and admired many of those who contribute vocal performances — more on that below. It’s a tribute album, but one of a very different sort, honoring Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers. The full story is as follows.

Ashley Beedle and Darren Morris were apparently listening to records late one night and, inspired by Mavis Staples’ performance of “A House is Not a Home,” composed a bare-bones instrumental track that they sent to Kurt Wagner of Lambchop, who added lyrics and a vocal performance before returning it to the two producers for further embellishment.

Delighted by the result, Beedle and Morris repeated the same experiment with a number of other artists, including Ed Harcourt, Sarah Cracknell, Danielle Moore, and the always wonderful Candi Staton. What is amazing is how each of these performers turns the same basic track into a totally unique composition; not knowing all of these details until after listening to the entire album a couple times through, I didn’t even realize what was going on until I read about it.

And as a tribute to Mavis and the Staple Singers, this all works surprising well. Much better, in fact, than the usual routine of having a bunch of people cover songs that were basically done perfectly the first time around. Think of how “I’ll Take You There” would go, for instance. Maybe — maybe — you could find someone who would dare to “reinterpret” the vocals without too much embarrassment (Dave Longstreth?). But what, then, to do about Pops’ guitar solo? That’s like a Picasso drawing — just perfect, with nothing more and nothing less than what’s needed to make it perfect. You could trace a Picasso drawing and come out with something that sort of looks like a tracing of a Picasso drawing, but why would you even want to? Same with that guitar solo, it seems to me.

Instead, Beedle and Morris have assembled a set of originals that pretty much do begin to capture the integrity and soulfulness of Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers, coming up with something that’s truly rare: a tribute album that’s worthy of and stands up to repeated listening.

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