The Carolina Chocolate Drops emerged from the almost-forgotten tradition of African-American Piedmont fiddling a couple of years ago with an album, Genuine Negro Jig, that deftly blended jigs, reels, string band and 19th century African-American music, blues, country and Americana. The band won a Grammy for the album that sounded both traditional and modern.
It's always difficult following up a hugely successful album. Record companies often want an act to repeat the same successful formula, while the musicians may want to take the music in a different direction.
The Drops, along with old-time/new wave blues band Hazmat Modine, are among a group of bands revisiting the roots of "old-time" American music, reinterpreting and reinventing the music as they go along.
The Drops new album, Leaving Eden, the second for the Nonesuch label, was produced by Nashville legend Buddy Miller who was at the dials for Solomon Burke's comeback album. Recorded live, the album features new member and multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins, who replaced founding member Justin Robinson, "human beatbox" Adam Matta and viola player Leyla McCalla.
The addition of the new members has expanded the band's repertoire and sound. Of the 15 songs on the new album, about half are traditional and the rest are covers of songs by early pioneers like Cousin Emmy and Hazel Dickens.
As with the previous album, there are plenty of uptempo string band tunes but to this core, the band has added more blues and jazz, even a touch of the Caribbean. The album kicks off with two instrumentals, Riro's House, a stirring tribute to the band's mentor, African-American fiddler Joe Thompson, who passed away recently aged 93, and the soft and lilting Kerr's Negro Jig.
These two songs segue into the first song to feature Rhiannon Giddens's amazing, sassy voice _ Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man? _ and the Drops' trademark banjo and percussion-led sound. This is a real get up and dance number. Even better is the jug band number that follows, Boodle-De-Bum-Bum, which features both Giddens and new member Jenkins on vocals.
The next track, Country Girl, is my favourite tune on the album. It has the same groove and feel as the hugely popular Hit 'Em Up Style cover on the previous album (but with percussion provided vocally by Jenkins, who sounds exactly like a set of drums). Giddens sings sassily of life as "a country girl" in the South. It's such a catchy and infectious song, and it has been running around my brain for over a week now. She also tugs the heartstrings on a sad lament, Leaving Eden, and continues the theme of strong, independent women on the Tin Pan Alley song No Man's Mama.
Read 'Em John adds a note of resistance with its call for freedom, while West End Blues, not a cover of Louis Armstrong's song of the same name, is a banjo tune originally composed by Etta Baker with lyrics by Giddens. The album ends on a beautiful note with Giddens performing a cappella on Pretty Bird.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops have deftly avoided the dreaded "second album syndrome" by spreading their wings and moving slightly away from their traditional roots to include a broader range of styles and a more eclectic sonic mix that includes more instruments, including long forgotten ones like the hambones on Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man? And the strange gourd banjo on Leaving Eden. The Drops are mining the rich seams of 19th century minstrel music, jug bands, blues, the American songbook and Americana, but they do it on their own terms _ a cover song by this band is almost like a new song after these fine musicians have done with it.
The old blues adage is for the musician to avoid repetition and take the music on to a new place. The Drops have certainly followed this advice and with great aplomb. Highly recommended.
More information on the Carolina Chocolate Drops at www.carolinachocolatedrops.com.
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About the author
- Writer: John Clewley