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Rhiannon Giddens Rhiannon Giddens
Album: Freedom Highway
Label: Nonesuch
Tracks: 12
Website: http://www.rhiannongiddens.com

Rhiannon’s phenomenal, inspirational voice was a key component of the sound of Carolina Chocolate Drops, the band she co-founded a few years back. Subsequently, at the time of her first solo album, instigated and masterminded by iconic producer T Bone Burnett just two years ago, “tomorrow may have been her turn” (so to speak). But now, after first receiving two Grammy Award nominations for her between-albums EP Factory Girl (released near the end of 2015 but sadly not received here for review), and then receiving the 2016 BBC Radio 2 Singer Of The Year Folk Award, tomorrow’s here at last, and she’s arrived back on disc with Freedom Highway, a brand new collection that shows the other side of the coin (again so to speak) in that it majors on her own original songs and co-writes (whereas Tomorrow consisted almost exclusively of covers of songs associated with other notable female musicians).

The new album also has a quite different sound to Tomorrow Is My Turn. It was co-produced by Dirk Powell in his Louisiana studio, with the bulk of recording done in wooden rooms built prior to the Civil War (adopting the principle that the space was allowed to be a voice in itself to release the stories already in the walls); this gave rise to a unique sense of presence, a kind of raw claustrophobia, a kind of spacious but enclosed box; this also kinda reflected the fact that it was recorded over an intense eight-day period.

The quality of intimacy extends to the scoring, with several tracks employing a quite primitive, sparse texture heavily reliant on Rhiannon’s banjo and maybe just a primitive backbeat or one or two other instruments. Some tracks bring in a loose swamp-bayou feel, while others include a New York horn section and emphasise the intently soulful nature of Rhiannon’s music. The songs themselves are singularly empowering, ranging from the desperate traditional-ballad-style exhortation of Julie (a standout vocal performance from Rhiannon) to the tender country-styled We Can Fly, the cheeky bouncy rhythms of Hey Bébé and the funky The Love We Almost Had (both featuring some gorgeously sassy jazz trumpet) to the grinding electric-guitar-fuelled Come Love Come and the brooding mantra of At The Purchaser’s Option (“you can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul”). The mournful gospel-style lullaby Baby Boy (a co-write with Lalenja Harrington) is another standout track, while the album’s three covers take in the defiant title track (which, though written by Pops Staples over 50 years ago, speaks every bit as relevantly today) and Richard Fariña’s Birmingham Sunday (here given a heartfelt sanctified-gospel-groove reading). The only track that doesn’t feel musically convincing here is the wordy rapping-funk of Better Git It Right The First Time. That’s easily skipped tho’, out of the middle of a fine set which looks destined to capitalise on the success of its predecessor (which is still hot off the player – yes it was that tasty!).

David Kidman