Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week, we’re telling you about two: Mavis Staples’ If All I Was Was Black and Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings’ Soul Of A Woman.
When the diminutive-in-size-but-not-in-performance Sharon Jones arrived in 2002 with her debut album with the Dap-Kings, Dap Dippin’, it was the beginning of one of the ‘00s most heartwarming, and life-affirming music stories. Here was Sharon Jones, a former prison guard, making her debut LP at 46 years old, coming on like a lost singer of the Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin generation, delivering peak soul music like it was 1962 not 2002. Her career—and the label that was started partially to help release her albums, Daptone—slowly built to the point where she sold respectably, toured the world, and picked up Grammy nominations.
Right as Sharon was hitting her late-in-life peak in 2013, she was diagnosed with bile duct cancer. Her treatments and recovery became the subject of a riveting documentary, as it chronicled her performing during treatments with a shaved head from the chemo that kept her cancer at bay. But she announced at the premiere of the documentary that her cancer had returned, and on November 4, 2016—the day Donald Trump won the presidency—Jones had a stroke, and was hospitalized until November 18, when she passed away.
It’s hard to know that a woman who proved the power of continuing to live your life as hard and as big as you can is gone, but that attitude is all over Soul Of A Woman, Jones’ final album with the Dap-Kings. Not just a collection of half-done songs or outtakes, this was the album Jones was working on right up until her death. The songs here jump with the hallmark intensity of Jones’ back catalog, but those moments are also backed by stunning emotional orchestral ballads.
Lead single and the album’s first track, “Matter of Time,” is a cracking soul jumper, and its especially poignant music video makes it sneakily devastating. “Rumors” rides a skronky sax over its fun two-and-a-half minutes, while the jazzy “Come and Be A Winner” is sly and seductive. The album hits its peak at “These Tears (No Longer For You),” a swaying, luxurious ballad delivered to an ex.
Soul of a Woman closes with “Call On God,” a song that will have you in tears as it reaches its climbing climax. Sharon Jones made the most of her life’s late opportunities, and this album is a fitting and sad sendoff.
Mavis Staples has had something of a comeback story herself, in the last decade. She was part of the legendary Staple Singers before she was a teenager, and was with them for the better part of 35 years of ups and downs in their recorded career, and for 50 during their live performance career that ended when Pop Staples died in 2000. As a solo act, Mavis hadn’t gotten much attention—her first two solo albums, a self-titled and Only For The Lonely are lost classics, and her Prince-produced ‘80s solo albums are interesting cultural artifacts—until 2007, when her Ry Cooder-produced “comeback” album (it was only her second since 1996) We’ll Never Turn Back got a lot of good critical attention. But it took until 2010’s You Are Not Alone, an album produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, before Mavis got the appropriate due she’s been entitled to as a solo act all along: she won a Grammy for that album, and has since toured the world as a solo act.
She’s back this week with If All I Was Was Black, her third Tweedy-produced-and-written album, and follow up to last year’s indie rockers penned Livin’ On A High Note. Stylistically, you know what to expect: Tweedy and company play some mixture of rootsy soul mixed with the soft lens Americana of Wilco (he has multiple guitar solos on this that are as good as Wilco-related guitar solos have been since about 2007), while Mavis plays the heavy, belting and wailing like she always has. Her voice isn’t as towering as it was 50 years ago, but what’s continually impressive is how she’s gotten more and more out of her pipes as they’ve aged like expensive wine.
If All I Was Was Black is subtly political like some of the best Staple Singers material; after all, they were one of the musical soundtracks to the Civil Rights Movement. In interviews, both Tweedy and Staples mention the times calling for an album like this, one that talks police brutality (“Little Bit”), Black Lives Matter (the title track), of passing down the struggle of the past so young people can learn from it (“Peaceful Dream”), finding common ground (“Build A Bridge”), and quotes Michelle Obama (“We Go High”). It’s not the firebrand album we all want post-Mueller indictments, but it’s more Staples’ style: the world might be going wrong, but she’s going to sing about what needs to happen for us to right it.