In many corners, from grammar school social studies
classes to the studio occupied until only recently by Don Imus, the Civil
Rights movement of the early '60s is ancient history. But as the federal
response to Hurricane Katrina sadly illustrated, institutionalized racism
has hardly disappeared. Rather than an exercise in nostalgia, the eighth
solo album of Mavis Staples' long and storied career is therefore as vital
and relevant as today's headlines.
Mavis Staples, "We'll Never Turn Back" (Anti-)
"We need a change now more than ever," as
Staples sings on "My Own Eyes." "Why are we still treated so bad?"
Revisiting songs such as that one, "Eyes on the
Prize," "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "We'll Never Turn Back" -- classic
anthems from the days when the Staple Singers were an inspiration to the
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the soundtrack to a movement that made
history -- the 66-year-old artist infuses the material with a passion and
urgency undiminished by the passing of time. Her voice is as strong an
instrument as ever, and her deep roots in soul, blues and gospel are evident
throughout as producer Ry Cooder, the supremely sympathetic rhythm section
of drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Mike Elizondo and the exquisite backing
vocalists the Freedom Singers and Ladysmith Black Mambazo provide the
perfect understated accompaniment, allowing her to shine.
Staples' last collection of new material, "Have
a Little Faith" (2004), was a sadly overlooked gem. With the help of Anti-,
an indie/underground label that specializes in cutting-edge sounds as well
as new music from giants who've been unjustly written off (Tom Waits,
Solomon Burke, Merle Haggard), she may finally get the recognition she
deserves not only as a Chicago legend but as a national musical treasure.
Like the Strokes and Domino labelmates Franz
Ferdinand before them -- to name only two of many recent hipster-endorsed,
dance-floor-friendly Great White Hopes of Rock -- the Arctic Monkeys don't
stray far from the musical formula established on last year's "Whatever
People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not," which holds the distinction of being
the biggest-selling debut album in British history. But if the English
quartet's sophomore offering lacks the thrill of discovery on its
predecessor, it's every bit as melodically irresistible, rhythmically
inspiring and plain old energetic, and it hardly plays like a stale rehash
or disappointing sequel.
Arctic Monkeys, "Favorite Worst Nightmare" (Domino)
Maybe the fact that total sales of the debut in
the United States have yet to reach first-week sales in Britain has the boys
feeling as if they still have something to prove; maybe their formula is
more open-ended and durable, or maybe we can credit the consistently fresh,
witty and incisive social observations of Alex Turner's lyrics, which
actually deserve the praise the British music press is heaping on them as
part of a school that starts with Ray Davies and runs through Paul Weller
and Damon Albarn. Witness the cutting dis of a tom-catting himbo on the
first single, "Brainstorm," or the unexpectedly poignant but endearing
portrait of an aging and now-retired party girl in "Fluorescent Adolescent."
"You used to get it in your fishnets / Now
you only get it in your night dress," Turner sings over a typically
infectious groove. "Is just a memory and those dreams / Not as daft as
they seem / My love, when you dream them up." Songs like that are strong
enough to prod anyone off the couch and into their dancing shoes.