Album Review – "Don't Lose This", Pops Staples

The Staple Singers was a gospel group comprised of four sisters: Mavis, Cleotha, Yvonne and Pervis Staples, and their father, Pops. They began performing and recording as a group in the 1950s. In 1999, Mavis and Pops recorded the backbone of an album together. It was meant to be the last Staple Singers album. Pops died before it was finished.


When Mavis played Pops the recordings for the last time he said, “Don’t lose this.” She didn’t. Fifteen years later, the album is finally being released. Co-produced by Mavis and her frequent collaborator, Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco), this album is a testament to Pops’ talents as a performer, and Tweedy’s talents as a producer. With his work cut out for him due to the recordings’ rough sound quality, Tweedy separated Pops’ guitars and the groups’ vocals from the rest of the music, cleaned them up, added new guitar and bass parts himself, and brought in his son, Spencer, to record new drum parts. Despite the fifteen year gap between the recording sessions, the instruments all gel together perfectly. On the subtle funk of ‘Somebody Was Watching’ and ‘No News Is Good News’, the 18-year-old Spencer’s drums lock in perfectly with the guitar grooves laid down by a man who would have turned 100 last year. Every kick drum is a gentle punch to the gut.


Neither Tweedy ever met Pops, but Jeff knows a thing or two about producing a great Staples album. He takes a similar approach here as he did with Mavis’ two most recent albums, One True Vine and You Are Not Alone. That approach is, of course, to get the hell out of the way and let the Staples sing. And they do. For the few songs the entire original group appears, their harmonies sound effortless. Maybe it’s because they are a family. Maybe it’s because they toured together for over 45 years. Whatever the case, ‘The Lady’s Letter’, in particular features the kind of harmonious warmth and magic only the Staple Singers can provide. Two tracks, ‘Sweet Home’ and ‘Better Home’, are moving duets between Pops and Mavis. But for most of the songs, Pops sings lead, and his voice sounds better than ever. This is impressive considering not just his age at the time, but also that he was terminally ill during the entire recording process. Never a flashy singer (he left the vocal pyrotechnics to Mavis), Pops’ voice is entirely unique and wonderfully understated. Conventional gospel groups feature backing singers providing a stable harmonic bed for a lead singer with an impossible vocal range to let loose. When Pops sang lead, the Staple Singers flipped this paradigm on its head. The sisters’ backing vocals display fantastic range and variation, while Pops’ vocals sit right in the middle, his melodies often consisting of only a few notes. But that was all he needed. Pops’ distinctive guitar playing is equally impressive. Tremolo-laden arpeggios, thundering open chords, heavily-plucked lead notes; it’s all here. Pops won’t go down in history as a Jimi Hendrix or an Otis Redding, and nor would he want to. Pops, much like Tweedy, was all about the song, and he picks some great ones here. He revisits the Staple Singers classic, ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ and covers Bob Dylan’s biggest religious hit, ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’. The highlight is the beautiful ‘Friendship’, a simple ode to loyalty and dedication made deeper by Pops’ heartfelt delivery.


Though this is the final Staple Singers album, it is credited to Pops alone as a tribute to the great man. Truly, he could not have left a better final statement. Mavis and Tweedy deserve much praise for handling the material with such care, and finally getting it out to the world.


We’ll be featuring tracks from this album on Ian ‘n’ Joel’s Funk ‘n’ Soul, next Tuesday 17th March at 8pm on Insanity Radio.


~ Ian Aikman