March 13th, 2012
The Carolina Chocolate Drops follow up their Grammy-winning 2010 effort Genuine Negro Jig with Leaving Eden. During the intervening two years founding member Justin Robinson went his own way and was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins. Beatboxer Adam Matta and cellist Leyla McCalla are semi-regular contributors and both toured with the band last year, though not at the same time.
Earlier this year the band’s mentor, fiddle player Joe Thompson, passed away at 93. Thompson, as his obituary in the New York Times notes, helped preserve the black string band which leaves CCD at the fore of keeping that tradition alive. So it’s only right that Leaving Eden’s lead track, “Riro’s House”, is a song that the band learned from Thompson. Jenkins picks away at the banjo while Rhiannon Giddens’ fiddle races along on top. Dom Flemons picked up a couple brushes and a snare drum to give the song a beat and cast it anew.
Using the human voice to create percussive sounds has been going on for centuries but it’s most closely associated with hip-hop these days. Matta’s first appearance is on “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?”, an old Cousin Emmy song. After hearing a version of this song from 1940, it’s apparent that Giddens slowed down the banjo. This opens more room in the song for mandolin and Matta’s beatboxing which fits in well. His beat feels modern but it doesn’t overwhelm the song and provides a nice contrast to the stringed instruments. The change in tempo also allows for a little dynamics and after each chorus the band speeds things up with Flemons flailing away at the bones.
Matta’s beatboxing is also featured on the lone original composition here, “Country Girl”. It is this album’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style”. McCalla’s cello bolsters the rhythm to good effect while Giddens sings in a more contemporary rhythmic style. The lyrics extolling the simple country life of the South seem a bit twee here and there but the song melds old and new in a way that makes lyrics about eating the vegetables from your garden sounds less sentimental and more in line with the slow food movement.
The lovely title track again showcases Giddens’ magnificent voice. A delicate guitar and a haunting cello underscore the somber lyrics about the effects of globalization on a mill town. It’s a story heard many times before such as when factories supplanted craftsmen and the song fits the CCD ethos of the past resonating in the present. Giddens also tears it up on the Ethel Waters song “No Man’s Mama” which celebrates the newfound freedom that divorce entails.
There are also a handful of generally shorter songs that almost feel like filler. “Kerr’s Negro Jig” is a slow tune picked out on the 5-string gourd banjo that was found in songbook dating back to around 1870 while Flemons stumbled upon “Mahalla” on YouTube where he saw a video of South African guitarist Hannes Coetzee playing it. “Read ‘Em John” is a fantastic piece of a cappella call and response while the album’s penultimate tune is a medley of old banjo songs found in Tom Briggs’ Banjo Instructor from 1855.
They may sound like filler on a cursory listen but they are great songs in their own right. Furthermore such tunes are an integral part of the CCD style which involves poking into all the nooks and crannies of traditional music.