While the Grammy's debate rages on (yes, I'm Team Beck), I think we could all use an album to start the new year that reminds us of a time when good music was simply good music, and artistry and performance were one in the same. Set to drop on February 17, Don't Lose This by Pops Staples is now available for streaming on NPR's First Listen. And if, in fact, first listens are any indication, the album is poised to get the Americana chart off to a remarkable start in 2015.
Produced by his daughter Mavis Staples, in collaboration with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Don't Lose This brings to light Pops' final contribution to a long and celebrated career. Born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi in 1914, gospel and blues were second nature pursuits for Pops, then Roebuck Staples, who counted Son House and Charlie Patton among his earliest collaborators. The youngest of 14 children, family came first for Pops. After performing alongside his wife Oceola and their children in local churches for much of the 1950s, he signed his family band to Stax Records and The Staple Singers became a hit factory of the '60s and '70s. From protest songs to folk, to their more mainstream '70s hits, The Staple Singers quickly became a mainstay of popular music. Tracks like “Respect Yourself” and “I'll Take You There” broke barriers with their gospel-tinged, chart-topping soul.
Don't Lose This, thanks to the diligent production efforts of Mavis and Tweedy, is a return to Pops' roots. Fifteen years after his death, his voice comes across as clear and profound as when I first heard his contribution to “The Weight” on The Last Waltz. Filled with his signature soft projection, the album weaves between gospel, blues, and soul without a single miss. As he did with the Mermaid Avenue project, Tweedy does not compromise the integrity of Pops' original tracks. Rather, he uses a deft hand, applying guitar work only where it's necessary to round out the original sound. Right out of the gate, “Somebody Was Watching” is a seamless and exciting melding of hand-raising gospel with a funk edge. Through it all, Mavis Staples provides her legendary throaty backup as if her father was still in the room. Of particular note is “Love on My Side,” in which Staples demonstrates the family knack for moving songs of social protest. Like his hits of the '70s, Don't Lose This is marked with praise and uplifting messages on tracks like the sweet, lean-on-me-esque “Friendship” and the beautiful duet between father and daughter on “Better Home.” A true gem is “No News Is Good News.” A standout track, it combines everything I love about Pops' style: an uplifting, yet firm warning about our social awareness, a choir-based chorus, and a throwback funk rhythm.
The story goes that the title of Don't Lose This comes from the initial recordings of the album. Knowing his time left in the world was limited, Pops turned to Mavis and instructed simply, “Don't lose this.” We should all be glad she took his instructions to heart. The album is a beautiful, poignant, and innovative start to the new year in music. Moreover, it is a testament to the heart of the modern day Americana fan: we are very careful not to lose roots. Appropriately, the album ends with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” It is a fitting end not only because Pops was a gospel singer, but also because fans of Americana and roots music will find solace in the fact that real music is still out there. Even if Pops has to come back and tell you about it. (No stage rushing necessary.)