Rhiannon Giddens has been the one constant thread through the various lineups of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She’s a conservatory trained singer with a great feel for traditional music and not inconsiderable chops on the banjo and fiddle.
It seemed to me early on that she was one of the most interesting things about the “drops”, not just for her own material and her instrumental contributions but also the way she showed that restless, far-ranging spirit that so many great roots artists have and which enables them to embrace music from outside their nominal genre and perform it with respect for the both the material and the tradition. In Giddens’s case this included a reworking of the contemporary R ‘n B hit “Hit ‘Em Up Style” and a superb a capela rendition of the British folk song “Reynardine”.
There’s been some odd solo outings along the way – more often live than on disc – but this is really her first album-length solo project. One that I’ve been waiting for with some anticipation. I got it from iTunes this morning and I’m calling it already: This is a brilliant album and for what it’s worth (not very much) and at this time of year I’ll be surprised if it’s not making all sorts of “best of” lists round about the end of this year.
It was as clear as dishwater is dull from listening to the Drops that Giddens was a vocalist of skill and distinction. So I was not unprepared for a strong vocal performance, but this… oh my.
This is one of those albums where everything comes together at the same time. A fine production from T-Bone Burnett, well chosen backing players (I suspect mostly chosen by Burnett, and some of them are “go to” players of his), strong material and, in the spot light, stage front and center, a stunning vocal performance from the woman whose name is on the album cover.
There’s no instrumental contributions from her here (amongst other crack players Gabe Witcher of Punch Brothers takes the fiddle role), the focus is on her considerable gifts vocal gifts. And she has it all: range, control, feel, timing, dynamics and the ability to sell a song to the listener.
This morning on Facebook I posted that I was listening to Rhiannon Giddens. A friend of mine initially read this as I was listening to Rhianna and was much amused. Well, Rihanna and every other pop princess you can think of wishes she could deliver like this. It’s a potent, moving, near flawless performance and yet not once does she resort to histrionics or showboating for it’s own sake..
This is the real deal.
There’s a not-so-hidden sub plot to this disc. All the songs – bar the closing number which she wrote herself – are associated with strong female musical figures: Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton (who is hard for rock/pop fans to take seriously, but we should), Patsy Cline and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (one of the immediate precursors of Rock ‘n Roll and a major influence on Elvis Presley) amongst them. The choices are consistent in this regard, and just in case you don’t spot it (I wasn’t sure I had) she thanks them all in the liner notes.
There are jaw-dropping, magical performances all over the place and she shows that as well as tacking the blues and string band music she made her name with she can easily handle contemporary pop (an imaginative, bang up to date reworking of the traditional “Black is the Colour”) and country (Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind”). She delivers strong gospel performances (Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head”, Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree”) and a show-stopping (even in this company) performance of the Patsy Cline hit “She’s Got You”. All, as previously noted, without giving away any of her own strong musical character. It’s that character that holds the record together. Irrespective of the material and the origins and the styles this is HER album. And you should make it yours too.
Coincidentally and unhappily this album appears to be the subject of Richard Haslop’s last weekly column for Business Day. I’m sure they have their reasons, but this is a loss for the more adventurous listener in South Africa. Let’s hope that somebody else has the good sense to give him a regular soapbox.