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Album Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops

June 17, 2010

Genuine Negro Jig – 2010

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson, a trio who originally began their foray into music mainly as a tribute to other artists.  Drawing from the very earliest styles of blues, country, and folk that emanated from black fiddle and banjo bands – oh say, around the 1930s – the Drops have chosen not only an interesting form of music to produce, but also a very interesting time to produce it.  When so much of the current and hippest music is being made by laptops, iPhones and the other latest electronic gadgets, it’s a pretty bold move to recreate music from such a bygone era using traditional instruments.  It’s exactly that boldness, complete with a full dedication to detail, that makes the Carolina Chocolate Drops such an interesting group and Genuine Negro Jig an album well worth having.

That’s not to say that covering traditional folk songs is necessarily the most original thing in the world – but this group definitely knows what they’re doing.  After all, they surely could have written a bunch of new songs instead of including half an album of covers.  However, the Drops are fully devoted to paying homage to the traditional groups that paved the way for their own entrance into recording.  And all things considered, it’s a pretty smart move.  Chances are, the segment of the population to whom Genuine Negro Jig will be marketed probably won’t have a lot of classic traditional standards in their musical repertoire…and if they do, they won’t sound like this.  These covers serve as a nice introduction into a genre of music that hasn’t received a lot of attention in quite some time.

Genuine Negro Jig starts out with “Peace Behind the Bridge,” an instrumental intro that uses plenty of fiddle and banjo, immediately rattling you into a different state of mind full of dust and southern porches.  Even after setting that scene, the Caroline Chocolate Drops make the old standard “Trouble in Your Mind” sounds fresh and bouncy, despite the lyrics.  “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” was the only song written by a member of the band (Dom Flemons), and it fits in just fine alongside all the other classics, while “Hit ‘Em Up Style” (a cover of Blu Cantrell’s 2001 song) is surprising in several ways. First of all, it manages to be a fairly faithful cover – the strings are simply transposed into a fiddle riff – plus, it’s the first time on the album where the Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens takes the lead on vocals; and she’s a total star.  Her voice is gorgeous and clear and she has impeccable delivery.  She’s the secret weapon of the Caroline Chocolate Drops.  See: “Why Don’t You Do Right?”, a sexy, seductive, blues-addled slow jam.

Other songs on GNJ come across as somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the type to get stuck in your head for hours after you’ve heard them, like the jigs “Cornbread and Butter Beans” and “Cindy Gal,” and the less fun, but no less smart “Kissin and Cussin.”  The back half of the album isn’t quite as immediate as the first – the Drops’ covers of “Sandy Boys” and “Trampled Rose” fall a little flat, the latter especially in comparison to the beautifully haunting cover on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand (you can read my review of Raising Sand here).  “Reynadine,” which showcases Rhiannon’s outstanding a capella abilities, is interesting to listen to, but not exactly the type of track you might add to your iPod for a jog.  It’s very much in hymnal style.

Building upon their introduction to this style of music, it would be a natural move for the Drops to extend this amazing sound and production work into more original content.  Genuine Negro Jig is appealing on many levels, but the real hallmark of success is that the Carolina Chocolate Drops were so effectively conjure up the sounds and vibe that enable you to see and feel the era that inspired their tunes.  If they’re able to use those skills to start a genre revival, they’ll have the potential to be true pioneers.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. seanningham permalink*
    June 18, 2010 9:46 am

    I love this album – the songs, the instrumentation, the voices – but you nailed it when you said some of the songs get stuck in your head. They get stuck very easily, and you’ll be singing them to yourself all damn day!

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