Grammy award winners Carolina Chocolate Drops first surfaced on our radar a couple of years ago with a saucy bluegrass cover of Blu Cantrell’s Hit ‘Em Up Style. The accompanying album saw their jugband stylings mix with a more contemporary edge. This latest LP sees a return to genuinely rootsier place. Their tongues are still mostly planted in their cheeks, but the cheeky ironic covers have gone in favour of a more authentic and traditional hoedown.
The group’s last album went straight to the top of the US Billboard Bluegrass chart. The mere fact that such a list exists tells you that there’s still a keen appetite for this music in its native home. It might not find as big an audience outside of the North American context, but this collection of African-American inspired string band music is certainly worth a look, whether you’re a fan of the genre or curious to know more.
The energy of the album can feel scattered at times – the opening salvo of Riro’s House is a short stab of full-on hillbilly punk, but thereafter the pace varies between hoedown to jig to ballads and jazz and back again. The mixture of country and contemporary is a tricky one to pin down but Rhiannon Giddens’ fascinating and soulful vocals maintain continuity. Her voice really shines through on highlight Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man, the brilliant Country Girl. And the album’s title track is also rather a triumph.
Leaving Eden does have its obvious flaws, but what’s undeniable is how fun it is to listen to, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for from an album. There may be the odd mis-step where we almost slip into novelty act, such as the old-timey blues of Boodle De Bum-Bum, but at least as a group they’re not afraid to switch styles while remaining faithful to their vision. The energy and sense of humour is pushed to the fore and you won’t be left in any doubt as to how great a live act they should be. And on the strength of this recording they all but plead to be heard in a live setting.
Their last album played the crossover card, but it’s difficult to see Leaving Eden transcend beyond the already initiated. If you’re a roots and bluegrass fan then you’re likely to enjoy this album, which sets out clearly what it intends to do, but casual listeners may find it to be diverting fun that lacks lasting appeal. It’s an admirable effort, but outside of its core audience it’s something of a drop in the ocean.