Rhiannon Giddens is undoubtedly one of the most talented artists in Americana today. The front woman of the Carolina Chocolate Drops might be mistaken as new by fans introduced to her via her appearance on Eric Church’s current single “Kill A Word.” But I assure you she’s been making music for a while and is an artist I consider essential listening for Americana fans. Her voice is absolutely enthralling and impressed from my first listen of her debut album Tomorrow Is My Turn. That was an album of covers, so I was looking forward to hear an album of mostly original material, which is exactly what we get on her new album Freedom Highway. There was a reason I’ve had my eye on this album and man does it live up to the high expectations I had for it.
Slow, rhythmic drums play in the decidedly folk “At The Purchaser’s Option.” It’s a song about a woman raped by an owner at an early age, leading to her conceiving a child out of the assault. But she’s reminded that her baby can be taken at any moment at the purchaser’s option. It’s an incredibly powerful song that can take on multiple meanings. “The Angels Laid Him Away” is a cover of Mississippi John Hurt’s song. It’s a solemn song about death that shows off Giddens’ beautiful voice, as well as her great banjo picking. The bluegrass driven “Julie” is about a mistress and slave being in love, but the slave finding out later the mistress has sold her children. It’s another emotional story on an album full of them. Not to mention the instrumentation really sets the tone of the song and draws the listener in. Giddens does a fantastic job covering Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday.” The song is about the 16th Street Baptist church in 1963 being bombed by members of the KKK that ended up killing four girls and 22 others.
It’s kind of hard to pick the best song on this incredibly deep album. But if I had to pick one it would be “Better Get It Right the First Time.” The funky sounding song is about a young African-American man mistakenly ending up at the wrong place and getting gunned down as he ran. It demonstrates how African-Americans are expected to walk a tight rope and get it right the first time, or there won’t be another time. Giddens’ nephew Justin Harrington comes in later in the song and lays down a rap to make an already excellent song better. The softer “We Could Fly” tells of flying home after death. It’s a very much a spiritual, meditative reflection of finding peace and freedom. Giddens dives into smooth and upbeat New Orleans style jazz on “Hey Bébé.” It’s probably the happiest moment on this album, as it’s an instant toe-tapper and the horn play is top-notch.
“Come Love Come” is about a slave couple on the run trying to outrun their captors and just trying to live their lives together. The song ends with the woman waiting for her man to arrive in Tennessee, hopeful he one day makes it to her. We get more jazzy goodness on “The Love We Almost Had.” It’s about love that almost was and leaving both sides wondering what if on the possible relationship. The forever fleeting love song is another standout on the album. The somber “Baby Boy” is about a mother vowing to always watch over her son. The song features some wonderful harmonies from Giddens and Lalenja Harrington that impress. The instrumental “Following the North Star” plays in the album’s title track, a Pops Staples song, to close out the record. Giddens duets with fellow Americana artist Bhi Bhiman on this energetic anthem about marching down the highway of freedom. Some lively horns appropriately play out the song and end the album with a real exclamation point.
To be honest I really don’t feel like my words do justice to this magnificent album. Rhiannon Giddens’ Freedom Highway is a flawless album from start to finish. The songwriting and themes explored on this album are incredibly powerful and graceful. Giddens voice is golden as always and I can’t believe how many different genres this album explores. There’s folk, bluegrass, blues, funk, hip-hop, soul and jazz. Each are executed wonderfully and show the true definition of Americana (a big credit goes to multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell). This is absolutely one best albums you’ll hear all year and may even go down as the very best of 2017.
Recommend? – YES!
Album Highlights: Better Get It Right the First Time, At The Purchaser’s Option, We Could Fly, Julie, The Love We Almost Had, Freedom Highway
Bad Songs: None