Spin Control

April 29, 2007


Mavis Staples, "We'll Never Turn Back" (Anti-) 3 and a half stars
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.

"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.


Arctic Monkeys, "Favorite Worst Nightmare" (Domino) 3 and a half stars
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.

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.