Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi (from the album They’re Calling Me Home available on Nonesuch Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
Springtime brings a major release in the Folk world in the form of They're Calling Me Home, the new album by Grammy-Award-winning singer, fiddler and banjo-player Rhiannon Giddens, in collaboration with Grammy-nominated multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. The 'Folk' and musical credentials of these two are impressive. Giddens, of course, performed with another Grammy-Award-winning outfit, the Roots-revival band Carolina Chocolate Drops. It is revelatory to see African-American musicians playing string-band music, a phenomenon once commonplace which has largely been air-brushed from history. The banjo, it should be noted, is fundamentally an African instrument. For his part, Francesco Turrisi is a true scholar of traditional music from across the world. This is their second collaborative album, following 2019's There Is No Other.
After fiery quiet of the album opener title track, “Avalon” is a beautiful launching point for They’re Calling me Home. We are whirled into a musical landscape of ringing, circling banjo, soft, striking strings, and hand percussion. There are clear elements of West African music here in the polyrhythmic patterns and subtly shifting, hypnotic melodies. This is cultured, cerebral songwriting and composition. Rhiannon Giddens' words float, honeyed and yet powerful, over a rising and falling soundscape. As with this album as a whole, the unexpected, novel and highly-inventive arrangements lift this song far above your standard fare. The results are sophisticated and demanding of your engagement but never do they sound pretentious or unnatural. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“Waterbound” sparkles like polished stones beneath a clear, flowing stream. The simple, mantra-like lyrics, almost a childlike sing-song, ease themselves into your heart on a cloud of gently-picked banjo, acoustic guitar, strings, and kicking, shuffling percussion. This is a song which stretches back to the ancient past but is at once familiar and affecting. As ever with Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, it is remarkable how this music, firmly entrenched in the traditional, is made to sound entirely fresh and exciting, this without any modern instrumentation or studio wizardry.
Turn-of-the-century Gospel favourite “I Shall Not Be Moved” shimmers and shines. Giddens and Turrisi inject a restrained, noble strength into their version, which is achingly beautiful. Soft breezes of accordion and bright, plucked strings, together with Rhiannon Giddens' melodic, mercurial banjo lift the song into hazy blue skies, where the sun warms your bones. A companion-piece of sorts, “Amazing Grace”, is treated to a startling, emotive, make-over. Giddens chooses to hum the opening bars, which makes for a sublime and incredibly expressive sound. Joined by the striking notes of bagpipes, Rhiannon Giddens voice circles around propulsive hand-drums, merging with the pipes themselves to create an unforgettable musical experience.
“Bully for You” rolls gently, with lilting mouth-pipes; a Gaelic-sounding instrumental, soft and inviting. As always, however, Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi add enough nuance and originality to hook the ear as well as the soul. Closer “O Death” on which Rhiannon Giddens sings over those same echoing, thudding hand-drums, with hummed vocal harmonies, further showcases her vocal talents. Her voice is cultured and smooth, with an edge harking back to the famous Blues-shouters of old. She is also more than capable of delivering a classical feel, reminiscent of English choral music. Witness the extraordinary “When I Was in My Prime” for proof. (by Chris Wheatley)
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