The Carolina Chocolate Drops were formed when its three members, Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Justin Robinson met at the Black Banjo Gathering Festival in North Carolina in 2006.
While their early recordings displayed a precious, almost academic, approach to “old timey” North American music this latest album is an altogether more contemporary and chart friendly affair. Produced by that hero of knob twiddlers Joe Henry the band’s reverence for such pure music has been turned into exuberance where the tracks jump straight off the CD and demand your toes start tapping.
This new CD, on the rather wonderful Nonsuch label, is a milestone for the band. Teaming up with Joe Henry, one of the most deft and talented producers working in music today, was inspired. Henry is exactly the kind of producer who would allow the band retain their reverence while also allowing the listener into their compact and perfectly formed little world.
The album kicks off with “Peace behind the Bridge” a short instrumental which sets out the its stall nicely. “Trouble in mind” displays their playful side, an aspect Henry seems keen to show off here. “Your baby ain’t sweet like mine” continues in similar vein and gives us one of the great kazoo/jug solos ever recorded. No seriously. “Hit ‘em up Style” was a disco hit for Blu Cantrell back in the eighties but this version tears that up and glues the pieces back in their own unique way. There would be a danger that this could descend into Comedy Country Covers a la Hayseed Dixie or The Gourds but this is a serious reinterpretation of what once seemed to be just another forgotten disco hit. “Cornbread & Butterbeans” is a pleasant if slight nursery rhyme of a song. Snowden’s Jig (aka Genuine Negro Jig) is a haunting handed down song from way back in the genre’s history. “Why don’t you do right?” is originally from the early thirties and evokes Peggy Lee and Jessica Rabbit (apparently both have recorded it!). More tracks from the ‘fun but slight’ basket come in the form of “Cindy Gal” and “Sandy Boys” with “Kissin’ and Cussin’” breaking the pace between them as a slow thoughtful treatise on violent relationships. It takes a certain confidence and maturity to drop a slow one like this in towards the end of an album. It works too. There more than hint of the Irish lilt about “Reynadine”. Rhiannon Giddens takes the opportunity to show off a voice that would blend into any good ballad session in any Irish pub. Straddling both acapella and Seán Nós seems to naturally adopt the unique phrasing that’s found in Irish signing. Of course the band aren’t to know that Reynadine is far from being a typical Irish girls name but then I wouldn’t be at all surprised if somewhere on Dorset Street there is a girl called Reynadine standing in her pajamas trying to buy twenty John Player Blue.
The album ends of Tom Wait’s “Trampled Rose”. A slight odd choice in that this song was recently covered on the ubiquitous Robert Plant & Allison Krauss album “Raising Sand”. In fairness the slightly sterile Plant & Krauss version is easily bettered by the more wholesome approach of both band and producer here.
It’s great to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops finally get onto a big label (Nonsuch is a pony in the Warner stable) and even better to hear they haven’t been compromised, much of that balance must be credited to the steady hand of Joe Henry.