CD Review: The Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden
Preserving and perpetuating the legacy of early 20th century black string bands may seem an unlikely and unwieldy task—and hardly the most commercial of prospects—but the Carolina Chocolate Drops have kindled new interest in traditional music, building up a devoted following and even earning a Grammy in their few short years as a nationally known group.
Leaving Eden is their second release on the Nonesuch label. (It follows 2010’s A Genuine Negro Jig.) While a title like “Kerr’s Negro Jig,” the CD’s spirited second track, is liable to cause some white listeners to hang their heads in embarrassment, such feelings are neither warranted nor relevant. What ultimately matters is the music—music representing a uniquely American melting pot, infused with the ancient folk sounds of Africa and Europe, the roots from which sprang country, blues, and bluegrass, and touching everything from spirituals to vaudevillian pop. The Carolina Chocolate Drops honor their black forebears, at the same time providing a lesson in the mutability of racial lines in their chosen art form.
There have been a couple of lineup changes since the previous album. Vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemmons remain, seemingly the core of the group; string player Hubby Jenkins—he also sings, but not as much—replaces Justin Robinson; and beatboxer Adam Matta contributes background vocals and percussion as a semi-official fourth member.
There is impressive variety here: Celtic flavors (“Riro’s House”), a cappella workouts (“Read ‘Em John”), pure country-folk (the title track), even an instrumental with South African origins (“Mahalla”)—all starkly captured by Buddy Miller’s production, which tends to sound a little more lo-fi than Joe Henry’s work on A Genuine Negro Jig. In terms of overall musicianship, Leaving Eden maintains the same standard as its predecessor.
If the album suffers from any obvious drawback, it is the lack of a clear-cut crowd-pleaser like the band’s cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style” to serve as an immediately accessible entry point. Something similar is attempted on “Country Girl”—built upon a beatbox/fiddle foundation, with original lyrics and an R’n’B-inflected vocal by Giddens—and indeed the track would make an excellent choice for single status, preferably accompanied by a video. But the sad and simple truth remains there may never be another “Hit ‘Em Up Style.”
Meanwhile, in the final quarter of Leaving Eden, Giddens gives her finest vocal performances to date on two of the album’s strongest songs, her tones so different as to sound like products of two separate people. The defiant “No Man’s Mama” was originally an Ethel Waters number, and the delicate a cappella “Pretty Bird” comes from Scotland. I saw her sing both when the Chocolate Drops visited Oklahoma City in June 2011. Overly eager fans yelled out for “Hit ‘Em Style” far in advance of when it was set to be played. This gave Giddens the opportunity to introduce “No Man’s Mama” as a sort of 1920s version of the same idea.
Clearly they have a way of winning you over—which they will, if you have even the slightest degree of interest in banjos or fiddles.