After Rick Rubin’s American Recordings with Johnny Cash and Jack White’s production of Loretta Lynn on Van Leer Rose, it’s tempting to think of recordings with career artists by contemporary producers and how they relate to their classic albums. As much as the Cash and Lynn albums helped those artists reach audiences that had given up hope for good albums and introduced them to younger audiences, the downside was that they caricatured the artists—particularly in Rubin’s treatment of Cash on the first of their collaborations.
Staton has been singing soul and gospel since the late 1960s, but she hasn’t had the sort of career that established an image for a contemporary producer to revitalize/refresh/refute. If people can name a Candi Staton song, most would point to “Young Hearts Run Free,” the disco hit from 1976, and there’s little defining about that song.
Lambchop’s Mark Nevers produces Staton on His Hands, and he surrounds her with family and friends, then he keeps everybody out of the way of her voice, which embodies what we think of when we think of “soul.” You can hear barely restrained passion in every vocal, whether it is sadness in “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go,” love in “I’ll Sing a Love Song to You,” or a complex mix of pain and compassion in the powerful title cut, written by Will Oldham.
Most importantly, Nevers keeps himself out of the way. He obviously made countless production decisions, but none of them are intrusive or obvious, so he never sounds like he’s trying to reinvent or reclaim Staton. Instead, he clears the musical deck so listeners can appreciate one of soul’s great voices, and he does a fine job of it.