Carolina Chocolate Drops: “Leaving Eden”
You can hear the Tennessee cicadas in the background of this new Carolina Chocolate Drops album, which I love. I’m not normally one to get caught up in questions of “authenticity,” understand. I’ve seen this particular group play, and I believe in my heart that they’re the real deal; here, though, the recording itself offers glorious assent to the truth of the Chocolate Drops as real country people making real country music, living and breathing and swinging here with wild, rugged joy. The cicadas harmonizing along with them makes it all too easy to sink into the belief that you’re sitting on some mountain porch, hearing this music created in real time.
Praises are due, of course, to producer Buddy Miller, picking up where Joe Henry left off. Joe’s work laid the necessary foundation, establishing this band’s penchant for country-blues, rustic folk, and Appalachian jigs. The music on Genuine Negro Jig was tough, drawing the past into the future. The new album likely wouldn’t have been possible without it; that said, Leaving Eden is a more confident, more joyful, and more intimate recording. It’s more ambitious, but less polishes. I simply think there’s more feeling here, and the songs seem to flow quite naturally out of the group’s passion for making music together.
Joe Henry led the band to a cover of a contemporary R&B song, Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” It wasn’t a novelty, but evidence of how much this music kicks, even when working to revamp modern material. Leaving Eden offers sort of the mirror image– a Chocolate Drops original, “Country Girl,” that almost sounds like it could fit on a contemporary R&B album. It’s a propulsive tune and an obvious single, its weight carried by vocal percussion and by Rhiannon Giddens’ swaggering delivery of the lyric, a celebration of rural Southern culture that takes the joys with the hardships and embraces the full scope of simple living and field labor.
It’s one of three songs that stand out as obvious anchors on a record that’s otherwise too fidgety, too primitive to stay in the same place for long. The title song is another showstopper, even if it’s also the most mannered thing here; it’s got a lovely cello arrangement, but the lyric, again delivered by Giddens, is what makes it stick. The song is about a life of hardship and strife, one that we all know must end in a sad goodbye– yet for all of life’s struggles, that goodbye is a bitter one, and the song embodies that tension to aching effect. The other big Giddens highlight is the closer, a lullaby called “Pretty Bird.” Performed basically a capella, the song makes me just the tiniest bit afraid that this group could evolve into just a platform for Giddens’ voice– and lovely though that is, I love this band for the glorious cling and clatter of banjo, mandolin, pipes and whistles, beatboxing, bones, fiddles, and kazoos that kick up so much dust on the rest of this record.
And yeah, as fine and as necessary as those album anchors are, I like the record best when it’s woolier, dirtier. The opening one-two punch is actually a little disarming in how ragged the sound is; the traditional “Riro’s House” is a hoedown led by fiddle, banjo, and snare drum, the vocal so muddy you could almost believe the recording is as old as the song itself. The same goes for “Kerr’s Negro Jig,” a creeping instrumental where those cicadas almost overpower the musicians.
And there are plenty of other highlights. “Read ‘Em John” is killer, howling in its gospel fervor and call-and-response urgency. That one’s sung by Dom Flemons, who also charms on the rustic nonsense “Boodle-de-Bum-Bum,” but Giddens is the singer on the funny, feisty brawler “West End Blues” and the jaunty declaration of female independence “No Man’s Mama.” I’m not even sure what to say about the ragged tear through “Run Mountain,” except that it is, indeed, Appalachian folk music at its most primal, and it’s wonderful.