Candi Staton’s career has been full of zigzags since she released her first solo album, I’m Just a Prisoner, in 1970. She was an overlooked southern soul singer, working with producer Rick Hall of Muscle Shoals fame; a dancefloor killer in both discos (“Young Hearts Run Free”) and European clubs (the Source collaboration “You Got the Love”); a gospel singer with a spot in the Christian Music Hall of Fame; and a cause celebre for indie rockers when working with aging soul singers became a fad in the 2000s.
Staton returns to the last mode on her new album Unstoppable, which is produced by former Lambchop member Mark Nevers. Nevers served the same role on Staton’s 2006 LP His Hands, a record that in places felt like a high-water mark for these sorts of indie-meets-soul-veteran pairings. The title track was particularly memorable — Staton sang about all-consuming love and cruel violence in the same breath, using that eerie ambiguity to break open the 6/8 ballad form.
The bad news is there’s no equivalent of “His Hands” on Unstoppable, though there is plenty of amiable, sneakily powerful funk. Staton’s band is fond of two-guitar arrangements, with one instrument playing a pricking rhythmic line while the other contributes greasy, distorted textures. Mostly the group sounds ready to sock it to the local bar crowd on Friday, though on “It Ain’t Over,” these players demonstrate a knack for understatement, conjuring a groove that’s sly and pretty.
Staton is, as always, comfortable with the lessons of gospel and the blues, bringing scratchy vitality to every line. That vitality is essential, because a lot of these lines lack zing. Unstoppable is full of blandly affirmative statements: “I won’t let you drag me down;” “You can’t turn me around;” “I’m not gonna stop until I see a complete turnaround;” “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything;” “I am somebody all by myself.” Staton’s career is a testament to her ability to reinvent herself in a harsh industry, but these are rote phrases; they don’t have much staying power.
Occasionally Staton turns to covers, but without much more success. She takes on Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” and the Nick Lowe-penned “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love & Understanding;” these seem picked primarily to hook nostalgic rock fans. Staton’s rendition of “Can I Change My Mind?” a 1968 treasure from soul singer Tyrone Davis, has a different problem — the original is so good that it’s basically uncoverable.
Though Staton’s career has been full of twists and turns, Unstoppable suggests something less exciting: a holding pattern.