It may not be as much fun as its artwork implies, but that’s pretty much a matter of course when you’re talking about an album titled Genuine Negro Jig from a band named the Carolina Chocolate Drops — a combination that promises more hours of floor-stomping, jug-blowing, washboard-rubbing fun than any group of mere mortals could deliver. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, though — far from it, in fact.
A string band trio dedicated to exploring the musical roots of the Piedmont region, the Carolina Chocolate Drops were founded in 2005, and have stayed plenty busy ever since, releasing an album a year (including their contribution to the soundtrack of The Great Debaters). As you might expect, their music has a strong traditional slant; their albums are weighted heavily toward songs in the public domain, and they studied at the feet of legendary fiddler Joe Thompson. All of which is great, but it’s hard to find fault with the band for expanding its repertoire a bit for Genuine Negro Jig — here, nestled in among old-time standards like “Cornbread and Butterbeans” and “Snowden’s Jig,” they’ve mixed in material of more recent vintage, like the original number “Kissin’ and Cussin'” and covers of Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose” and Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.”
As shifts go, it’s a relatively subtle one; the Drops bend the newer material to their style, rather than the other way around, and although their album-closing take on “Trampled Rose” is disappointingly short on energy, their cover of Up Style” is inspired — it’s a song most people remember, but haven’t heard in awhile, and done in a completely fresh style. They’re unlikely to ever find a real mass audience, but “Hit ‘Em Up Style” should help Nonesuch raise the band’s profile with curious listeners in search of something new. (Well, old, really, but you know what I mean.) Part of a crucial strain of young artists helping repair neglected bridges to our musical past — check out Otis Taylor’s wonderful Reclaiming the Banjo for another fine example — the Carolina Chocolate Drops are nothing if not Genuine, and for these 12 tracks, they’ve found a perfect producer in Joe Henry. If the album has a significant flaw, it’s that the first six tracks — which include “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” and a sublime “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” — lead things off so well that Jig‘s back half ends up feeling a little flat-footed. Still, a few uneven tracks are a small price to pay for hearing American music’s roots tended to with this kind of expert care.
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He’s far from a household name, but if you’re into Americana music, and/or the Nashville singer/songwriter scene, you’ve heard Will Kimbrough at work — he’s loaned his instrumental and songwriting prowess to a long line of famous names, including Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, the Jayhawks, Mark Knopfler, Buddy Miller, John Prine, Toumani Diabate, Josh Rouse, Mavis Staples, and, uh, Jimmy Buffett. Kimbrough’s fifth solo album, Wings, is credited in the liner notes to “Will Kimbrough…and Friends,” and it boasts a loose, homey feel to match; heck, it was even mastered to two-inch tape.
Happily, the songs — which include co-writes with Todd Snider and the dreaded Buffett — are as solid and unadorned as the methods used to record them. Wings is a sort of loose concept album about grown-up domesticity, and while Kimbrough’s experiences are clearly refracted through the lens of a touring musician who has to deal with the pain of missing his family for extended periods of time, the sentiments he expresses are universal. If you have a life partner, you know what it’s like to struggle with shortcomings — theirs and your own — and you know the sweet release of a love that time won’t deny. If you have children, you understand the neverending, peculiarly satisfying heartbreak of parenthood, from the bruises left by family ties to the pain of leaving your kids in the morning.
Kimbrough says he wanted Wings to be uplifting without being simple-minded, and he got what he wanted; this is smart, unassuming music for adults, crafted with unassuming skill and a clear eye for what matters. Musically, Kimbrough doesn’t waste a note, relying on tight, punchy playing from Nashville pros and arrangements that leave plenty of room for the listener to curl up inside. In an era of increasingly bright, brittle recordings, Wings hits you like a warm breeze. Play it while you have a few of your favorite beer.
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