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Mavis Staples

If Mavis Staples never uttered another note, her legacy as one of gospel's greatest voices would still be assured. A surviving member of the legendary Staples Singers, she helped carve a legacy that's revered in both sacred and secular circles. In recent years, Staples has made a comeback of sorts, reasserting her roots-bred reputation, traipsing the festival circuit, and, in an unlikely twist, connecting with famously insurgent Anti- Records. The results are manifest in her latest project, a stirring song cycle that pays tribute to the civil rights struggle. Staples doesn't so much reinvent the material as revitalize it, injecting these bittersweet anthems with a passion and conviction that reflects the heroism and heartbreak of that tumultuous era. Thanks to the assistance of producer Ry Cooder — no slacker himself when it comes to tapping tradition — the songs manage to sound contemporary — as per the upbeat surge of "This Little Light of Mine" and the boogie bent of "99 and 1/2" in particular — while remaining true to their rural roots. Staples brings a feisty first-person perspective to "Down in Mississippi" and, appropriately, "My Own Eyes," drawing lessons that sadly needed to be revisited after the calamity of Katrina. But it's the moving refrain of "I'll Be Rested" that reverberates on both sides of the racial divide, suggesting that when determination is tested, it ultimately perseveres.

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Lee Zimmerman

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