Don’t Lose This
Those touched-up posthumous albums…usually alarm bells ring, the hairs on the back of necks bristle, eyebrows twitch, toes can curl, buttocks sometimes clench – but no such issues here with Pops Staples (belated final ‘solo’ album) Don’t Lose This. Pops was recording this – in ill-health – in the late 1990s. He died just before Christmas in the year 2000. The demos for what is now this record were gathering dust, Mavis Staples the protector of her dear dad’s musical legacy.
She took the tapes to her current producer Jeff Tweedy and they decided to work up what they had, and what they could hear, whip it into release-shape.
Tweedy shows here – as he has in previous settings – that he has a head for production and arrangement, that he has great ears. The touch-ups, post-production playing and backing vocals, are subtle and the tracks have only been enhanced when absolutely necessary.
That means the highlights here are of course when you get to hear Roebuck “Pops” Staples doing what he did best. His reading of Nobody’s Fault But Mine where the plantation blues that Pops knew first-hand is stirred deep into the version of gospel music that his Staples Singers imbued with just a hint of soft-shoe shuffling funk across soul is the head and shoulders standout.
A version of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, stripped of its country-rock clothes stands proud too as gospel holler.
When Mavis shares the lead – as on Sweet Home – it’s a knockout performance. She grew up with the sound of Pops’ guitar teaching her the way; she’s been holding onto that sound (or a version of it) ever since. Her current bands/albums all have that pinch of Pops’ guitar-snarl; she’s found it in the playing of Rick Holmstrom and Ry Cooder. She’s been holding onto this music – and serving Pops’ spirit through her Staples Singers covers and her own records across the last decade particularly – you can hear how much this means to her.
What’s so stunning about this record – outside of the chance to simply hear Pops’ final work – is the understanding that this team effort is all for the greater good of serving someone else’s memory. Tweedy, Mavis and a small handful of players have chosen the very best of Pops’ demos and chosen to respectfully paper over some of the cracks – and only ever when absolutely necessary. Pops’ voice here sounds wonderful, the honey in that croon, the soul in every tune.
The only thing even close to a mild let-down is the closing cover of Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody. It feels superfluous – it plods in the way that so much of Dylan’s work from the 1980s did. But the history there – Dylan covered the Staples and vice versa, there’s the famous story of Bob proposing to Mavis – means it’s a fair enough inclusion. It’s hardly embarrassing but it is the one weak spot. The rest of the material here is the abject lesson in how to serve somebody, how to preserve their legacy and introduce them – potentially – to a whole new audience.