The shape of folk to come
It’s been one hell of a year for singer/songwriter extraordinaire, Rhiannon Giddens, and we’re barely halfway through it. She already put together the folk supergroup Our Native Daughters, who released their critically acclaimed debut, Songs of Our Native Daughters, in late-February. Now, barely three months later, she has dropped another full-length LP, There is No Other, which is a collaboration between her and acclaimed jazz musician & multi-instrumentalist, Francesco Turrisi. This album is an absolute tour de force in world music; Francesco brings an array of influences to the table as well as a plethora of exotic instruments, and Giddens is more than able to consolidate those influences and instruments with her unique brand of Americana.
The production value of this album is incredible, and every instrument is given room to breathe. The performances themselves are absolutely phenomenal, which is even more impressive when taking into account how this album was recorded in five days and most of these tracks are first takes.
Giddens’ voice, which is something she is already renowned for, is in top form on this album. Her prowess and versatility are on full display, particularly on track eight, “Briggs’ Forro,” which features some intense vocal gymnastics as she manages to keep up with Turrisi’s maniacal melodica playing. She possesses the unique ability to inject every single syllable she sings with tangible emotion. For instance, “I’m On My Way” is absolutely dripping with sass and swagger; she exudes infectious confidence, most noticeable when she delivers the line: “I don’t know where I’m going / but I know what to do.”
Turrisi’s contributions to this album shouldn’t be overlooked; the exotic essence that he brings to this album essentially serves as its foundation. He’s been described as a “musical alchemist” before, and it’s obvious as to why; he displays a near virtuosic level of proficiency when it comes to the vast array of exotic instruments on this album. This album is strongest when his Mediterranean influences take the stage; this is especially evident on track six, “Pizzica di San Vito,” which is a mindblowing rendition of a traditional Italian song.
Perhaps the most compelling track on this entire album is their rendition of the folk staple, “Little Margaret.” Giddens and Turrisi take one of the most recognizable songs of the folk tradition and mutate it into something which arguably rivals the later works of Scott Walker. The track consists of nothing but Turrisi playing an intense beat on a daf (a Middle Eastern drum which sounds somewhat similar to a timpani) while Giddens sings a beautiful, whimsical melody over it.
One of the biggest issues with American roots music in the 21st Century is that too few artists are willing or able to take the risks necessary to keep the genre moving forward. The spirit of experimentation is absolutely vital to the survival of a genre, and many musicians who play in the style of Americana are generally averse to any deviation from the established conventions. With There is No Other, Giddens and Turrisi have bestowed what is essentially a blueprint for artists who want to expand their musical horizons without straying too far from their roots. It’s incredibly disappointing to think that the innovations displayed on this album are currently being overshadowed by the ridiculous argument over whether or not Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” qualifies as country music (for the record: it does).