Graded on a Curve:
The Como Mamas,
Get an Understanding

Over the last couple decades quite a few ears have been hipped to the power of classic gospel music, but it’s been substantially more difficult to locate and celebrate vital contemporary sources in the genre. Leave it to Daptone Records to address this lack of current gospel gusto. The label’s just issued a massive slice of fathoms-deep a cappella soulfulness from The Como Mamas, and anybody that’s been knocked sideways by the spectacular triumvirate of Ray, Sam, and Aretha should find Get an Understanding to be a rich and revelatory experience.

Looking back on the development of my lifelong interest in this thing we call music, I was first seized by a passion for rock ‘n’ roll. After that, I discovered the blues. It took just a little longer to get acquainted with the vastness of jazz, and then a few years later came a reevaluation and acceptance of the assorted strains of country music, the stuff that was actually closest to my ancestors and the communities where they lived, and unsurprisingly a form that I placed at a distance for far too long.

For some reason, or perhaps due to a confluence of circumstances, getting up close and personal with the deep rewards of gospel music happened even later still. Part of why can be chalked up to how much of the music’s crucial history, with the exception of a few gospel-blues artists like Blind Willie Johnson and the Rev. Gary Davis, wasn’t really aggressively marketed to the interests of more secular-minded music fans.

Of course, anybody with a love of soul music eventually got hip to the Soul Stirrers, and folks that investigated the background of The Staple Singers eventually came into contact with their outstanding early work for United and Vee-Jay. Curiosity into earlier country sounds would reveal such spiritually-themed sibling combos as The Delmore Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, and The Blue Sky Boys. And the roots of it all could be found as part of the rekindled interest in what’s now known as old-time music.

But there was a whole lot of truly massive material, particularly from the mid-section of last century, which persisted in remaining unknown to listeners looking for musical kicks rather than religious nourishment. Slowly however, evidence of this major iceberg of historical sound started rising to the surface, and stumbling upon second-hand copies of both smokin’ volumes of the Krazy Kat label’s Get Right with God compilations provided this writer with a huge clue on a trail to a whole lot of once-hidden greatness.

Next, courtesy of Arhoolie, came recordings from the Rev. Louis Overstreet and the frenzied lap-steel guitar material found on a bunch of releases from that sterling company, maybe the best being Sacred Steel – Live! Then came meetings with the prime work of such amazing ‘50s-era vocal groups as The Swan Silvertones, The Dixie Hummingbirds, and The Fairfield Four.

And things really started heating up on the classic gospel front over the last decade or so. There have been collections spotlighting the work of Rev. Charlie Jackson, two mammoth Mike McGonigal-compiled box sets Fire in My Bones and This May Be My Last Time Singing for the Tompkins Square label, and a wealth of uncovered material from the Fat Possum subsidiary Big Legal Mess.

What all of the above has in common should be obvious; it’s all retrospectively focused. While I’m no expert on the topography of the contemporary gospel music landscape, very little of the new stuff that’s crossed my path holds a candle to the major work mentioned above. In a manner similar to the unhyphenated blues or straight-up country & western (or for that matter the bluegrass or old-timey-inspired material that populates a big part of the current Americana field), most of the contemporary gospel that’s met these ears is hindered by an aura of sophistication in service of commerciality that sadly renders it rather underwhelming.

But very little doesn’t equate to everything. A few years back the Daptone label, a modestly-scaled yet industrious imprint that’s most notable as the home of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, provided access to some truly essential contempo strains of uncut gospel goodness. The first inkling I’d been given to this stupendous state-of-affairs came through witnessing Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens as openers for a Jones/Dap-Kings tour roughly four years time ago.

The sound of Shelton and the Queens was exquisitely delivered gospel-soul aided by a crack band of current New York City-based R&B heavyweights, the personnel overlapping with the Dap-Kings, the whole experience registering as timeless and yet as urgent as anything on the music scene of the moment. Picking up Shelton and crew’s LP What Have You Done, My Brother was a stone cinch that didn’t disappoint, and while purchasing that record it made sense to take a stab and acquire the intriguing and superbly designed Daptone compilation Como Now.

Adorned with the subtitle The Voices of Panola Co., Mississippi Recorded Live at Mt. Mariah Church July 22nd 2006, the Como Now set provided an enlightening and musically-gripping document of one Saturday in the life of the singers in its grooves, the participants’ a cappella renditions so forceful and lacking in ambitions to the marketplace that it persists in seeming somehow inappropriate to describe them as performances.

This shouldn’t be misconstrued as romanticism; if Como Now presents “social music” (to use Harry Smith’s term) that’s deeply rooted in the past, the artists it shares are in no way out of step with the modern world. Instead, they are simply everyday if far from ordinary people engaging in a deep tradition that resonates as meaningful in a way that’s quite distinct from most secular music either old or new.

Como Now shed light on one religious congregation in one locale in the fertile musical territory of the current American South, and included in that array of talent were three women, Ester Mae Smith and siblings Angela Taylor and Delia Daniels, collectively known as The Como Mamas. On Como Now the trio was but one fine ingredient amongst many, but the just released Get an Understanding provides them with a platform entirely their own, and in so doing the LP actually manages to transcend the substantial quality of its predecessor.

Two reasons for The Como Mamas’ success immediately spring forth. One is the rich and striking sound of the three harmonizing voices, instruments employed with a level of talent reflective of more than just virtuosity, possessing an expressive skill that’s remindful of the great jazz musicians.

Get an Understanding contains no bum notes and an uncommon level of interaction between the three participants (Smith is the leader, Taylor and Daniels provide impeccable accompaniment) and while the very nature of a cappella music makes this level of craftsmanship not especially surprising, it’s nonetheless the other aspect that helps their achievement to so quickly assert itself.

But what makes that depth of familiarity doubly impressive is detailed in Michael Reilly’s liner notes for the LP. The thirteen songs found here were actually recorded as part of the same Saturday session that produced the music found on Como Now. While it’s not explicitly stated, the background provided in Reilly’s text combines with the lack of production embellishment to make it obvious Get an Understanding was recorded in a series of single takes. This is only underscored by the (very infrequent) sound of observers coughing as the Mamas lay down their superb readings of songs that have been a part of their milieu for generations.

This is music practiced to perfection not in the hopes of stardom but instead for the most time-honored of reasons; survival, both for the individuals making it and for the community they inhabit. Yes, religious belief is the impetus, but sharing in this conviction isn’t an essential factor in being moved by The Como Mamas (though it will surely help).

In fact it’s clear that the hymns collected here could provide substantial impact to individuals lacking even the slightest comprehension of the English language. That’s what’s called intensity of emotion, and all three of The Como Mamas have it. And in a world that finds its inhabitants frequently divided by circumstances of religious belief, the music found on this gem of a record serves as a regenerative balm, made in the spirit of tolerance and as the album’s title so aptly states, achieving understanding.

For those with a toe not tipped in the glory of African-American gospel music at its best, there is no reason to hesitate. While Get an Understanding interprets material from such bedrock figures in the genre as Thomas Dorsey (“God is Good to Me”) and Rev. James Cleveland (“Peace of Mind”), in fact drawing on traditional sources much older than those august names, it’s also securely tied to a thread of musical development that includes Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and maybe most importantly Aretha Franklin.

In other words, the music here is positively drenched with soul. And yet The Como Mamas are distinct from their label-mate Shelton; her far more performance-based music, again featuring in-the-pocket live instrumentation, is completely comfortable in the nightclub or other secular spaces. The Mamas however, through reliance on nothing more than their vocal chords, remain deeply linked to the church and therefore to the very direct social functions that inspired them to take up song in the first place.

It is purity in the absolute best sense of the term. So they’re an especially nice fit with Riley’s producer as documentarian approach, a non-meddlesome method inspired by his hero Alan Lomax, a crucial force in American music and culture that just happened to record Angela and Delia’s grandfather Miles Pratcher on a trip to Como in 1959.

Get an Understanding surely connects in the grand tradition of Folkways, but it also flows exceptionally well as an album, gaining strength from back-to-back listens through varied levels of intensity. And individual songs often undergo considerable structural shifts that are handled without a hitch, adding to the album’s diversity.

Every track is a keeper, but the record is loaded with a handful of total monsters. At this point the fleet, energetic grandeur of “Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do” and the closing showstopper “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” are the high points. But that could easily change over time.

Referencing one musician’s praise of another isn’t something a record reviewer should get in the habit of doing, but I suspect some Doubting Thomases are out there. So in this case relating Sharon Jones’ statement that The Como Mamas’ are at the root of everything she does as a soul singer simply makes good sense. It’s a declaration of truth on behalf of a flawless record, and hopefully her testimonial will encourage a few more people to check it out.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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