New Music: Mavis Staples and Andy Bey Release New Albums

June 25th, 2013

“One True Vine” (Anti-)

Mavis Staples’s new album, “One True Vine,” is both a sequel and a reversal. It’s her second collection of (mostly) gospel songs produced by Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, following up their 2010 collaboration, “You Are Not Alone” (Anti-), which landed Ms. Staples her first Grammy Award (for best Americana album) in a career that dates to the 1950s.

Well into the 1990s, Ms. Staples’s deep, husky contralto, at once devout and sensual, was at the center of her family band, the Staple Singers, who moved from gospel churches in the 1950s to civil rights rallies in the 1960s to the pop charts with 1970s hits like “I’ll Take You There.”

On “You Are Not Alone,” Mr. Tweedy had clearly studied Pops Staples, who led the Staple Singers as guitarist and songwriter; the songs were full of pithy, syncopated reverbed electric guitar, and they exuberantly affirmed the power of faith. “One True Vine” is quieter and darker: no less reverent, but far more pensive about it. It ponders more than it proselytizes.

Mr. Tweedy plays most of the guitars and keyboards on the album; his son Spencer Tweedy plays drums. Jeff Tweedy sets the new album’s solemn tone with three songs he wrote: measured, midtempo tunes that have as much to do with solitude as with redemption. Two of them, “Jesus Wept” and “One True Vine,” don’t mention any deity in their lyrics. “Jesus Wept” longs for a reunion and reconciliation, while “One True Vine” praises “The only one that I believe,” but immediately adds, “I trust you/I hope that someday you will trust me too.” In “Every Step,” Ms. Staples insists, “My Lord he knows me every step of the way,” but the song’s minor key, trudging beat and austere guitar, along with Ms. Staples’s bluesy voice, make that line awe-struck and fearful, not sanguine. The album opens with a hymnlike song from the band Low, “Holy Ghost,” that treats faith more as an intuition — “Some holy ghost keeps me hangin’ on” — than a doctrine.

There are some optimistic moments. “Far Celestial Shores,” written for Ms. Staples by Nick Lowe, envisions heaven not only as a realm of abundance and joy, but also as “a place I know for certain I will someday see.” And the gospel standard “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)” is lean — acoustic rhythm guitar, brushes on the drums — but determinedly celebratory. Yet, as a whole, “One True Vine” is as introspective and diffident as a gospel album can be. Bravely and intimately, it leaves room for doubt. JON PARELES

ANDY BEY

“The World According to Andy Bey” (HighNote)

Andy Bey, a bass-baritone jazz singer with a four-octave range, makes his music slowly, and his solo voice-and-piano records rarely. This isn’t really a problem. You can live with each one for a while.

“Ballads, Blues & Bey,” from 1996, has been a kind of sacred space worth revisiting at intervals. “Chillin’ With Andy Bey,” only a little less extravagantly good, came out in Germany in 2003, but distribution problems made it almost invisible here. The new one, “The World According to Andy Bey,” has the edge on the others: more trenchant and mysterious, and with the inclusion of some of his own songs, a clearer look at his essence.

Mr. Bey is 73 and grew up in Newark. Bebop rhythm and harmony, blues language and the titanic example of Sarah Vaughan all lie at the center of his conception; a vocal-improvisation track here called “Dedicated to Miles” refers to some of the patterns Miles Davis played with Charlie Parker in 1947 on “Cheryl.”

But Mr. Bey’s music is powered at the core by his own resources: a strong chest-voice and a deeply interior imagination. He often sings during rests between his piano chords, choosing carefully where to add bits of volume-surging and vibrato, and works unnerving silences into his phrasing. The whole enterprise remains spare but deep.

“The World According” proceeds along two tracks that cross only because he makes them cross. One is the best among the American-song standards: here are Rodgers and Hart’s “It Never Entered My Mind,” George and Ira Gershwin’s “But Not for Me” and “ ’S Wonderful,” and so on, full of distanced, sharpened observation and humor.

The other track is Mr. Bey’s own songs, not included on the other solo records, like “Being Part of What’s Happening Now” and “The Demons Are After You.” They scan like diary entries, or meditations on readiness during a time of emergency, and don’t necessarily rhyme; they use oblique harmonies and repetitions.

This is a record of soul research in real time. It sounds as if it were done in an afternoon. But Mr. Bey’s art is complete within itself. He performs a couple of rare solo sets at the Blue Note on Sunday night, during the Blue Note Jazz Festival. Missing them could be a bad idea. BEN RATLIFF

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