, Carolina Chocolate Drop's second full-length Nonesuch disc, was produced by Nashville stalwart Buddy Miller, the go-to guy for artists ranging from Solomon Burke to Robert Plant to Emmylou Harris. On this 15-song collection, recorded live in the studio with all the players in a single room, the Carolina Chocolate Drops illustrate their own adaptability to grow and change. Following the amicable departure of founding member Justin Robinson, band mates Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons recruited three exceptional new players for the recording and expanded their repertoire to incorporate more overt blues and jazz elements and straight-up folk balladry alongside brilliantly rendered string-band tunes. Robinson's replacement is Hubby Jenkins, a Brooklyn-bred guitarist, banjo player, and singer who had previously busked his way around the country. Joining the revamped trio in Miller's studio were beat-boxer Adam Matta, introduced to them by the NYC gypsy punk band Luminescent Orchestrii, with whom CCD released a live EP on Nonesuch last year, and New Orleans-based cellist Leyla McCalla.
The 93-year-old fiddler Joe Thompson died a week before this album was released. He had been a hero of old-time music in Mebane, North Carolina, and they used to say he was the last of the African-American string band players. And he could likely never have imagined his dusty tradition crossing not just the hills of the local Piedmont region but the world’s wide oceans, until he began to mentor a trio of young enthusiasts. Carolina Chocolate Drops have stretched the musical map a notch – and this high-profile follow-up to the Grammy-winning Genuine Negro Jig kicks off loyally with a stomping tune from Thompson’s repertoire.
It’s strong medicine, too, on an album that takes a less-compromising tilt at tradition than its predecessor. Reports and reviews will tell you about the prickly instrumentation: blowing jug and sawing fiddles, the mouth music of the beatboxer, the gut-string banjo and clacking cow bones of 19th century minstrelsy (“Saturday night femur,” ran one headline). But they don’t convey the tough, unnerving gusto of the music, and Buddy Miller’s production doesn’t smooth off any of the rough edges. The recording crackles with gasps and natural echo, and the virtuosity and imprecision of an ensemble playing full-tilt together. And it’s plain terrific.
Dispelling the myth that black music began with the blues, the Chocolate Drops have reclaimed a swathe of the musical styles that enlivened the South a hundred years ago. Their musical archaeology has taken them to documents like the 1870 songbook that provided the gourd-banjo instrumental Kerr’s Negro Jig, and to old-timers like Joe Thompson. In its early days, too, the group was fostered by Tim Duffy of the wonderful Music Maker Relief Foundation – a unique North Carolina institution that tracks down and supports forgotten musicians – and West End Blues is a mulish banjo tune from Music Maker’s Etta Baker (born 1913).
There’s artful variety; the band may have a particular approach, but they’re no purists. Ragtime, jug band novelties, calypso and even folk-rock jostle among the hoedowns and jigs. And Rhiannon Giddens’ compelling, often strident voice has never been more soulful than on the touching title-track.
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