Three months in and there’s already been plenty of good stuff– including three records that very well might, in fact, stand as my three 2012 favorites when December rolls around. Two of those three are only now releasing, in the month of April, and my full reviews are forthcoming. Naturally, their presence here can be taken as a very strong endorsement indeed.
01. Black Radio
Robert Glasper Experiment
03. Locked Down
Vijay Iyer Trio
05. Release Me
06. Leaving Eden
Carolina Chocolate Drops
07. Radio Music Society
08. Young Man in America
09. I Will Set You Free
10. Carnivale Electricos
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.
The title isn’t a put-on, and it isn’t a red herring: Genuine Negro Jig is what it says it is– that is, genuine. Using such a phrase as an album title in 2010– the age of Obama!– may seem like an act of provocation, but it isn’t. It isn’t a statement about race and music, nor is it an irony.
Race, in fact, is never commented on here, explicitly or implicitly, and if any listener thinks it off for a trio of black musicians to be playing hillbilly mountain music in 2010, the Carolina Chocolate Drops choose to let such ignorance go unanswered. The songs here almost go out of their way to avoid answering questions of race– whatever cultural baggage comes from ethnicity or skin color isn’t commented on in any of these songs, which are mostly about lovin’ and cheatin’, universal enough as far as song topics go. The Chocolate Drops know that they belong to a long tradition of black stringband players, and they allow their membership in that tradition to speak for itself.
As with race, so with the whole of modernity; there are virtually no references, either direct or ironic, to modern times, and no concessions to contemporary recording techniques or conceptions of roots music here. This is string music the way it’s always been done– with plenty of banjo and acoustic guitar, hand percussion, fiddle, jug, kazoo. Songs full of heartbreak and humor, hard days at the farm and easy summer nights of singing and romancing. Women who have nothing but money on their minds, and men who are much the same. The raw, unadorned beauty of the human voice. (And what beauty– the group’s two men are both excellent singers, but the standout is Rhiannon Giddens, delivering just the right balance of soul and sass.)
There are, actually, a couple of modern compositions here– a sepia-tinted cover of Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose” and a savvy bluegrass reading of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” the latter’s namedrop of Neiman Marcus being the set’s only hint that it was made in 2010, not some other time in the last sixty or seventy years. Some of the songs are traditional; some are original compositions. All of them are played with down-home vigor and conviction, with no further accompaniment than what the three Drops can provide for themselves. You might say that they’re romanticizing the past, but that’s not quite it; they make this old-timey music because they believe it to have the power to speak to us still– about simplicity, about those parts of human living that are both timeless and timely, about the importance of holding on to traditions like the ones embodied here.
Joe Henry produced the set, and even on that level it’s fascinating: Henry tends to work more with individuals than with self-contained bands, and so this is the rare Joe Henry joint that doesn’t feature his usual cast of studio musicians. It’s almost disarming to hear a Joe Henry production absent the timekeeping of Jay Bellerose, to name but one hired hand, but Jig quickly brings in to relief what’s really at the heart of Joe Henry’s music, and the Chocolate Drops’– the kind of clarity where there’s nothing to distract from song and voice, where the innate wisdom of the words and melodies are given space to come through when we’re patient enough to sit still and listen.
What the music reveals is that some things never change: We might succumb to modern arrogance and say that this is the music of “simpler” times, but the times were certainly no less difficult, nor any less filled with strange, surprising joy. In one song the Chocolate Drops sing of the plight of a hard day’s labor, followed by the sublimity of a supper of cornbread and butter beans, followed by an evening spent making love. What part of that is antiquated, even in 2010? I dare say that old-timey music like this resonates now as much as ever– particularly given how rarefied it sounds in this present age– and in the hands of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, it’s given just the honor it deserves.