Producer-superstar collaborations are often fraught with danger. When the producer is established, famous for a signature sound and star in their own right (see: Dan Auerbach, Danger Mouse, Brian Eno), they can easily overshadow the band itself. Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and gospel queen Mavis Staples found the holy middle ground with their 2010 collaboration, You Are Not Alone. Staples’s 12th solo album after being part of the famous Staples Singers in the 1950s and 1960s, You Are Not Alone won the Grammy Award for Best Americana Album for its combination of gospel classics and original songs written by Tweedy for Staples.
One True Vine, Staples and Tweedy’s just-released follow-up to that album, reinforces the brilliance of this particular producer-superstar collaboration. The central reason for its success is Tweedy’s subtle touch, guiding but never overbearing. Staples’s voice is an institution; it doesn’t need any padding or interference, and doing so would be almost sacrilege. Instead, Tweedy’s arrangements place Staples in the forefront of every song, with backing choruses in the distance to flesh out the harmonies but never attempting to add power. His guitar is rhythmic but rarely takes the spotlight, and drums provided by his son Spencer get the job done.
In songs like “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today,” plucked from the public domain and arranged skillfully with sweet horns, Staples takes her sweet time but delivers just as effectively as on the more upbeat “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus).” The selections of covers here, however, prove some of the most interesting choices on One True Vine. The title takes its name from an unreleased Wilco song, on which Tweedy switches out the original piano for acoustic guitar, using space and silence for maximum contemplative effect. “Can You Get To That,” the rousing single, does a solid job of matching George Clinton in funk, and “Holy Ghost” is a quick turnaround on a Low song just released months earlier. “Far Celestial Shore,” Nick Lowe’s original contribution to the album, finds a call-and-response choruses much to its liking.
Staples achieves her best on “I Like the Things About Me,” a Staples Singers original reinvigorated by a driving electric groove. On an album that’s otherwise more laid back, especially in its first half, the tune is a welcome pickup. “I Like” is a confident soul tune about finding pride in one’s flaws as well as attributes, and it’s a high point for Staples, finding critical success and a new, younger audience in these albums. Tweedy briefly brings his guitar into the forefront for a brief solo, fuzzy and distorted, bringing these roots closer to roots-rock. Staples continues to prove that she still has more in her than any singer alive, and Tweedy cements himself as the sole producer who can handle her talent.