"Soul of a Woman"
Sharon Jones recorded "Soul of a Woman" with the reliable Dap-Kings while battling the cancer that took her life a year ago — but her energy and vocal prowess are undiminished here.
Nearly all band members wrote material for the album, which offers a snug fit for Jones and continues the group's aesthetic of true soul sounds. The balance tilts slightly toward ballads, especially on the second half.
Jones was a powerhouse onstage, and the one-two combination of the hopeful "Matter of Time" with the forgiving "Sail On!" gets the record off to an urgent start. "Rumors" is playful, Latin-flavored dance-floor filler with some exquisite harmonies from Jones herself.
Curtis Mayfield could have inspired "Searching for a New Day," and "Girl! (You Got to Forgive Him)" has the drama of a James Bond theme song sung by Shirley Bassey and written by Isaac Hayes.
Fittingly, the album closes with Jones' own gospel composition, "Call On God." The testimonial was written in the late 1970s, recorded in 2007 and features backing vocals added shortly after Jones' death by members of choir of the Universal Church of God, an ensemble she led for years.
Despite the spirituality of the last song and a couple of tunes about time, the band's seventh studio album doesn't convey a sense of finality. You can be sure there were tears in its making, and you may shed some yourself knowing its conclusion, but Jones stayed true to herself.
Recognition and success came late in life to Jones, but her final performances are recurring proof that both were extremely well-deserved.
— Pablo Gorondi
"If All I Was Was Black"
Mavis Staples seems to grow in stature the longer she chronicles America and its contemporary woes. Her constant frame of reference — the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and her family's proud role as musical pathfinders in those tumultuous years — is useful as she addresses today's troubled racial waters.
In her third major collaboration with songwriter and producer Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, Staples examines the American scene, 2017, and finds it wanting in kindness and compassion. Musically, though, she has found a delicious, bass-heavy groove, slow and easy and perfectly suited for the confident, wise voice of the veteran singer who has been performing since 1948.
"If All I Was Was Black" is overtly political. Tweedy, lead writer on the project, said it would feel wrong not to face what is happening in the United States head on. "We Go High," for example, builds on a notable phrase from a speech by former first lady Michelle Obama. It's a record that describes an America where "people are dying, bullets they're flying."
Some of the more gospel-tinged songs, reflecting the underlying optimism in much of Staples' work, include a spiritual call for more loving in the world. "We've got work to do" is repeated on the chilling conclusion of "No Time for Crying," an eloquent song that calls for action rather than simply denouncing what's gone wrong. She also is ready to see her own faults, admitting on "Try Harder" that it would be foolish to pretend she is above reproach.
The pairing with Tweedy works well. The music is deeply felt; the presentation understated; and the guitar work, particularly on the climactic "All Over Again," elegant and supportive. At 78, Staples has never sounded more contemporary.
— Gregory Katz