Mavis Staples is one of the more potent voices of modern soul, but her roots are in gospel. And, on this stunning new album, she sings with a soaring, liberating power that can make you feel the intensity of a Sunday service, even if you're just lying on your couch or driving in your car.
In one of the stranger musical couplings, noted bad-boy Prince has produced and written most of the songs on this new disc, as he did in 1989 on Staples' Time Waits for No One. In Prince, Staples has found a fluid, funky guiding force, and in Staples, Prince has found a muse with a voice that can make your hair stand on end. On the title track, inspired by the Rodney King case, Staples unleashes her husky, snarling alto, tearing into the charged, mid-tempo track. The Voice refers to Jesus, but Staples has infused every song with gospel's sparkle, be it the juiced-up rap "A Man Called Jesus," a remake of Prince's "Positivity" or the sweeping bal lad "Blood Is Thicker Than Time."
With backup help from her family and members of Prince's New Power Generation, Staples carries gospel's urgency and humanity onto the pop charts again. (Paisley Park/Warner Brothers)
Pop music hasn't been this fragmented since disco and punk conspired to mercy-kill the Woodstock era in the late '70s. Yet turbulent times seem to give birth to daring, fiercely original groups, like the Pretenders, who made their debut in 1979. This year brings the Indians, who can also be heard on the new Kalifornia soundtrack.
Both bands are British, fronted by American women who moved to London to build careers as singer-songwriters. Like Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, the Los Angeles-born Angie Bianca of the Indians has a sinuous, intoxicating voice—a little too acrid to be considered conventionally pretty.
Bianca displays a rare facility for gliding through many of today's most popular musical forms, from the cage-rattling rock of "Bed of Roses" to the melodic rap of "Love" to the cloud-gazing balladry of "Look Up to the Sky." Like all good pop artists, she puts her own stamp on everything she touches. (Polydor)
With this collection of heart-fluttering love songs, Siberry—a quirky, intellectual Canadian songwriter—has produced the ultimate make-out album. Don't expect the lame clichés and programmed rhythms of typical romance music. Siberry changed her tune without sacrificing her intelligence. Her gentle voice and poetic lyrics seem more polished on this, her sixth album, and part of the credit is due to art-rock maestro Brian Eno, who produced two songs and gave general guidance. Fellow Canadian k.d. lang offered another boost by collaborating on the lilting duel "Calling All Angels."
During a year when Sleepless in Seattle has defeated Schwarzenegger at the box office, Siberry's tranquil songs of the heart just might push blustery Michael Bolton out of the love seat. So light the candles and pucker up. (Reprise)"
It may be time to check UB40's collective pulse. This chart-topping work from the British ensemble is so laid-back it borders on inert. The group originally scored with their Labour of Love albums, which reverently reworked soul classics in a horn-drenched, low-key reggae style. Promises and Lies is their first collection of originals in several years. The notable exception is the Rasta-Lite hit version of Elvis's "Can't Help Falling In Love." That track is indicative of the group's problem. Rather than being a reggae band, UB40 plays at being one, especially on the appalling "Reggae Music," which sounds like theme music for a Shriners convention in the Caribbean.
There are bright spots, though. "C'est la Vie" churgles along at a sassy pace, while "Higher Ground" is a dreamy lilt, guided by lead singer Ali Campbell's plaintive (if somewhat whiny) vocals. Luckily for UB40, the world is big enough to encompass the real and the ersatz, and if their legions of fans ever disappear, there's always a hip cruise ship in their future. (Virgin)
HER PRINCE HAS COME
"I DIDN'T START DOING SOLO BY choice," says Mavis Staples, 53. "I had to, because no record company-would sign my family. They said we were too old." The family, of course, is the Staple Singers, the renowned gospel group formed in the '50s, whose members also included Mavis's sisters Yvonne, 54, Cleo, 58, brother Pervis, 57, and their guitar-plucking "Pops," 77. The family started on the Southern circuit, raising the roof at Martin Luther King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, before switching to secular message music in the '60s. Though their pop album Bealtitude: Respect Yourself "went gold in 1972, the Staples were never able to match that success, and in 1987 they stopped recording.
"I was looking sad, and my father said, 'Mavis, you gel someone to record you, because the Lord has given you a voice.' " Not long after, she recalls, "Pops called me and said, 'Mavis, Prince is looking for you.' I said, 'What prince?' And he said, 'That one they call purple, Mavis!"
And so it came to pass that the purple one—long a Mavis fan—resurrected Staples' career in 1988, when he featured her on his Graffiti Bridge soundtrack, produced her 1989 comeback album, Time Waits For No One and took her to Europe as his opening act in 1990.
"We learn from each other," says Staples, who is divorced and lives in Chicago. "It's good for him to have somebody old enough to be his momma." And as for the moratorium on uttering the name Prince? Mavis laughs. "Being his momma," she declares, "I can call him anything I want!"
- Amy Linden,
- David Hiltbrand,
- Michael Small.