We Get By
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When we write about singer Mavis Staples, we tend to mention her age (she turns 80 next month). It's not a knock on her. Her voice shows no sign of weakening; if anything she’s getting stronger with age. Her music is vital. One might be tempted to say she sounds like an artist one-quarter her age. But that's not quite right. Because Staples' experience is what makes her music so special. On We Get By, her collaboration with Ben Harper, she wields her voice like a sword, capable of blunt force and finessed slicing.
Harper is a singer/guitarist perhaps best known for his beautiful lap slide work. Here, he stays in the background, writing and producing the album, while singing with Staples on just one track. The album feels intimate; it's like Staples is performing for you in your living room. A lot of that is due to Harper's production, which keeps things simple, putting the focus on Staples' legendary voice, which is what velour might sound like if it could sing. Staples is backed by her touring band, which is similarly dedicated to making Staples sound her best, not that she needs any help.
Interestingly, We Get By resembles Staples' most recent live album, Live in London released earlier this year, more than her recent studio albums produced and written by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. Which is not to say this is a dramatic style change for Staples. Rather, it's more a reflection of Harper's pre-production work, which saw him spending a lot of time watching her perform live. The tracks have the feel of a live show, not in terms of rawness, because Staples is always fully cooked, but more in the presentation of the songs.
Staples is a great interpreter, owning pretty much any song she decides to sing. So it's hard to tell if Harper's throwback songs, which are soulful, blues funk, suit Staples particularly well, or if she's just doing her thing and taking charge of them. The intent doesn't matter, as all 11 songs are great.
The title track is her duet with Harper, which has the sound of classic ‘70s soul. Harper's voice is especially rich, both alone and singing with Staples. Lyrically, it's sweet and simple: "We get by / We get by / No matter how long I've been waiting / We get by." Guitarist Rick Holmstrom delivers a wonderful lead that's interesting without being distracting, and which serves as a palate cleanser for the song.
"Heavy on My Mind" is another interesting track, featuring just Staples and Holmstrom's electric guitar. Staples tends to groove and this track doesn't. It's not quite blues and it's not quite jazz, but it's very cool hearing her in such a stripped-down setting. Staples' voice usually sounds tireless, and here there's a vulnerability that we don't usually get to hear.
Staples and Harper do lovely work together. I'm of two minds about Harper not playing any instruments on this. On the one hand, it shows a lot of restraint and keeps the album in Staples' signature style. However, one can't help but wonder what Staples might sound like singing over Harper's ragged slide lines. Given how solid this album is, I'm inclined to think he made the right choice, though. Plus, you have to trust Staples and all of that experience.
Notable Tracks: "Heavy On My Mind" | “Sometime” | "Stronger" | “We Get By”