critic’s pick 261: rhiannon giddens, ‘tomorrow is my turn’

rhiannonOn the title track to her debut solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, Rhiannon Giddens sings with empowered reserve. Throughout the rest of this remarkable recording, she cuts loose with churchy jubilation, bluesy reflection and even country majesty. But on this centerpiece tune, the singer known for her rootsy command with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, lets her inner diva shine. By channeling another vocal priestess (Nina Simone, who popularized the tune in another pop lifetime), she embraces a sound huge enough to be termed cinematic. She plays the song cool in this instance, but the end result could work as the theme song to a ‘60s James Bond flick. It’s that emotive and anthemic. Better yet, it’s just one of the many voices Giddens asserts with easy authority on the album.

Produced by Americana renaissance man T Bone Burnett, Tomorrow is My Turn is the record that unlocks Giddens’ numerous vocal preferences in a way the Carolina Chocolate Drops, by the sheer design of the band, simply couldn’t. In short, this is as liberating a work as you’re likely to hear all winter.

Take for instance, the celebratory gospel engagement of Up Above My Head. Strongly mirroring the prototype version cut by Sister Rosetta Tharpe without ever sounding imitative, Giddens plays off the fiddle sway of Punch Brother Gabe Witcher and some profound call-and-response choir singing. The resulting spiritual flow is sublime.

Stepping onto country turf is Dolly Parton’s Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind, where Giddens’ singing turns restless and defiant over sweeping ensemble support and another beautifully plaintive fiddle run by Witcher. Reaching further into Nashville tradition but veering away from its homogenized sound is Hank Cochran’s She’s Got You. Immortalized initially by Patsy Cline, Giddens’ effortless wail transports the song Northward to the kind of Acadian Americana sound The Band designed over 40 years ago.

Where does Tomorrow is My Turn travel from there? Try the streets of New Orleans for a revision of Black is the Color. Giddens and Burnett strip the tune of its Celtic/churchy veneer and forge it into a sensual parade piece that is part carnal and part carnival. Let’s also not forget O Love is Teasin’, a folk staple long ago reinvented by Kentucky’s own Jean Ritchie and fleshed out here with death rattle percussion from longtime Burnett ally Jay Bellerose and Giddens’ beautifully disruptive singing.

The album isn’t so much a solo beginning as an awakening. You could hear suggestions of these songs within the music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and, more distinctly, the recent all-star Dylan project The New Basement Tapes. But by bringing Giddens’ glorious voice front and center, along with all stylistic ammo that ignites it, we have the arrival of an Americana voice for the ages.

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