Alan Lomax was a renowned ethnomusicologist who took field recordings of Americans playing their regional folk styles. Many of his recordings in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s focused on black rural music. Some songs were recorded in homes, some in prison, some in the work fields and some in concert halls — altogether, these recordings documented what black music sounded like in the first half of the century and perhaps what shaped rock and roll, modern blues, and other essential American styles. Leaving Eden sounds like a collection of Lomax’s recordings. That, in folk music, is high praise.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a young trio of singing string players who play the old-fashioned way — but with a new energy. Learnt, in part, from the ancient fiddler Joe Thompson, they began with the banjo and fiddle music you might have heard in a 1940s North Carolina dance hall and have since developed a repertoire of originals and traditionals with a wider scope.
The Buddy Miller-produced Leaving Eden begins with an unrelenting fiddle, sawing over banjo and a downbeaten snare drum on “Riro’s House”, and it rolls right into the slow, solitary melody of “Kerr’s Negro Jig”. The pair’s low-key traditionalism proves to be misdirection as the next track “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” explodes with beatboxing, bodran, and bones under a dense mix of banjo, mandolin, and Rhiannon Giddens’ soaring vocal sustains. Later, the always impressive multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons pulls triple-duties on the upbeat traditional “Run Mountain”, in which he simultaneously plays banjo and fife while singing lines like, “Way up on the mountain / Give my horn a blow / Thought I heard my true love sayin’ / I’m coming for my beau.” Among Leaving Eden’s highlights are phenomenal versions of “Read ‘Em John” (a hand-clapping shout-a-long made famous by John Davis and the Georgia Sea Island Singers) and Flemons’ arrangement of “Mahalla”, a tune that YouTube helped bring to light through the popularity of a video of African guitarist Hannes Coetzee playing the melody with a spoon he’s holding in his mouth.
Of all the racket: the violins, banjos, various strings, and percussive poundings — all the sounds employed by Carolina Chocolate Drops, the one that stands out is the voice of Rhiannon Giddens. Her intonation is as clear as a country night sky and as strong as moonshine. But it’s her delivery that’s truly potent — able to lock into a songs emotional energy and express it in full. Her vocal personality ranges from unbridled sass on Ethel Water’s celebration of divorce “No Man’s Mamma” to intense loneliness on “Leaving Eden”. Giddens also proves herself as an excellent writer on “Country Girl”, a fasted paced ode to the power of a rural upbringing.
The Chocolate Drops underwent a personnel change when Justin Robinson left the band last year. Multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins was brought into the fold as a replacement, resulting in a sometimes fuller sound on account of Jenkins’ chording, where Robinson had played primarily leads and melody lines. Leaving Eden is also augmented by beat-boxer Adam Matta (whose vocal percussion contributes a layer of modernity atop the band’s traditional foundation) and cellist Leyla McCalla, who rounds out the recording with a low and mournful wail. All of this equates to a bigger and better sound for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with more dynamics and more avenues of exploration. These changes are of the upmost importance because the loss of a member — especially one as integral and multi-talented as Robinson — typically damages a group in ways that can’t be quantified, but in this case, Carolina Chocolate Drops adapted in a way that renewed their energy and advanced their output.
One year ago, the Carolina Chocolate Drops were presented with golden gramophones in the category of Best Traditional Folk Album for their 2010 release, Genuine Negro Jig. But for it’s diversity, experimentation, and excellent performances, Leaving Eden is even better.