Until fairly recently only fans of the Carolina Chocolate Drops knew that the group’s multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Rhiannon Giddens had one of the most amazing voices in the contemporary music world. That all started to change in 2013 when Giddens sent jaws dropping with her stand out performance at a star studded New York City concert to support the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis.
Celebrated producer T Bone Burnett was behind that show and he later recruited Giddens to participate in Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes a project where she worked alongside musicians like Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford crafting songs using old Dylan lyrics.
Burnett has once again joined forces with Giddens, this time to produce her debut album Tomorrow Is My Turn. While the music of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops focused on old time string music, “Tomorrow Is My Turn” finds Giddens taking a much broader approach toward American music. She covers jazz, country, blues and folk music written by artists that ranged from to Elizabeth Cook to Dolly Parton. The songs here are stylistically diverse, but their common bond is that they were all composed by women or else made famous by female singers. Giddens’ song selection presents a wide ranging view of the female experience.
The album opens with “Last Kind Words,” a song by relatively unknown blues singer from the ‘20s named Geeshie Wiley. Singing with a forceful conviction Giddens is accompanied by a gentle mandolin line and thumping bass, bringing a new level of emotion to material. Giddens has obviously put a great deal of thought into choosing her material, and she doesn’t shy away from songs closely associated with other singers. She puts her own stamp on every song, however, reinventing the material to evoke different sounds and emotions.
In her hands “She’s Got You,” a song made famous by Patsy Cline, is more torchy than twangy – the backing horn arrangement even gives the song a slight R&B feel. Then there’s the title track, a jazzy ballad that was once a staple of Nina Simone’s live set and is one of the most outstanding tracks here. A powerful song that conveys hope amidst great struggle, on this track the classically trained Giddens proves that her nuanced soulful voice is on par with singers like Simone and Cline.
Giddens provides another strong interpretation of the traditional song “Black is the Color,” a song that Simone also used to cover. She chooses to give this old song a contemporary spin, one that utilizes a backing beat-box and some swinging harmonica. Other highlights are her uplifting version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head” and “Waterboy,” a song that folk singer Odetta frequently performed.
T Bone Burnett enlisted some topnotch musicians for this disc, including her band mates from the Chocolate Drops – multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and beat-boxer Adam Matta. But it is clear that Burnett knows he is working with a one of a kind vocalist, so he keeps the arrangements sparse and fresh with the focus always on Giddens’ voice.
Tomorrow Is My Turn concludes with the lone original tune, “Angel City,” which Giddens has said was inspired by her experience working on The New Basement Tapes. A highly personal song, when Giddens sings “I am found where I was lost/I am closer to free,” it is clear she is about to step forward and gain the attention that she is so deserving of.