When Mavis Staples issued Have a Little Faith in 2004 on the Alligator label, there was no doubt she was back. While the recording was subdued in places, it also showcased her ability to get so far down inside a song that it had to bubble up and be completely reinvented by her voice. It wasn't just a soul and contemporary gospel recording; it also touched on her earliest days with her family singing the blues gospel, and there was a bucket of hope in each track. Several of the songs from the recording were used in television and film. Her 2007 follow-up, We'll Never Turn Back, focuses on another kind of hope: the hope that the men and women who engaged in the civil rights struggles of the early '60s brought to a hostile America and changed its laws -- and some of its attitudes, but not nearly enough -- forever. Staples has enlisted the help of the original vocalists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Community, who were called the SNCC Freedom Singers, Ladysmith Black Mambazo (no strangers to the struggle for basic human rights) in a couple of places, and Ry Cooder and his roots band to accompany them. Cooder produced the set, but his gift is the ability to retain in their entirety the voices of the performers when he works with them. Mavis may not have the shouting power she once had, but the conviction and expression in her voice have not wavered an inch. She's still got plenty in her pipes, and We'll Never Turn Back is the proof. Cooder's compadres are son Joachim on percussion, drummer Jim Keltner, and bassist Mike Elizando.
The song choices are quite remarkable, as the album kicks off with J.B. Lenoir's "Down in Mississippi," which echoes the spooky, eerie Pops guitar sound as the voices hover all around it. The arrangement Cooder chose for the traditional "Eyes on the Prize" accents his funky, nasty slide guitar as much as it does Mavis' voice. The song is offered not as an anachronism, but as a spiritual with contemporary -- even necessary -- instructions. Ladysmith Black Mambazo's backing vocals fill the refrains with a necessary sound of lineage as if this were the sound of antiquity coming forward to broadcast once more that it is necessary. Keltner and Joachim, with their contrapuntal rhythms, offer an organic take on breakbeats as well. The Freedom Singers begin their contribution on the album's fourth track, "In the Mississippi River," with Charles Neblett offering the call from ages past before the band gets inside it and makes it downright snaky. Mavis soon digs into her low register and the drums and slide guitar pump that backbeat with purpose, mean and slow. The shuffling swamp rock version of "This Little Light of Mine" makes it a new song. Mavis lays out pure Southern soul in her vocal and the band shuffles and soft-shoes it, making the tension rise in the singer's voice. On the popping gospel-funk of "99 1/2 Won't Do," they let her lead it and she goes down into the drum groove for inspiration and finds it there. Cooder's guitar playing asserts itself everywhere, but gradually and gently, preferring to let Mavis lead him. The gorgeous backing vocals by the Freedom Singers kick it.
The longest cut here is "My Own Eyes," where Mavis performs a tune she wrote -- it's an emotional reverie, recounting her own family's journey through the civil rights movement as inspired by the late Dr. King. Her message is not necessarily poetic, but it's deeply moving and urgent. When she raises her voice to proclaim "I saw it with my own eyes/So I know it's true," there's no doubting. When she indicts politicians on their failure in New Orleans, one can feel the bile rise in her throat. The final track is "Jesus Is on the Main Line," a tune Cooder himself recorded on Paradise and Lunch so long ago. This arrangement is completely different, but it's even more effective. His guitar is a slim, slow-sliding companion to Mavis' voice, full of distant reverb and in-your-face presence even as it pushes her vocal to the front. When the band enters a minute or so later, the tune cracks wide open and begins a kind of mariachi song as it meets gospel. The Freedom Singers egg on the percussion and it responds in the backbeat, and Mavis lets the graininess in her voice shine through. It's a rough-and-ready tune that is not only inspirational but fun. In sum, We'll Never Turn Back is the kind of album we need at the moment, one that doesn't flinch from the tradition but doesn't present it as a museum piece either. Mavis Staples has done it again.