The Carolina Chocolate Drops formed in 2005 intent on reclaiming the vital role that African Americans played in the string band tradition of the 1920s and ‘30s. On Leaving Eden, their fourth disc and the follow-up to the Grammy winning “Genuine Negro Jig,” the band continues to revisit old string band music while also going in some new directions. Roots musician Buddy Miller (Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris) handles production, recording the band live in one room resulting in a refreshingly warm sound. But the biggest change here is in the lineup.
Founding member Justin Robinson has left the group and with his departure, Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens brought in vocalist/multi-insturmentalist Hubby Jenkins, cellist Leyla McCalla and human beat-boxer Adam Matta . The group had previously worked with Matta on their 2011 collaboration with the Luminescent Orchestrii, and with these new musicians on board the band digs into some new sounds and incorporates a bit more blues, folk and jazz into the 15 tracks here.
The Chocolate Drops continue to utilize fiddle, banjo, guitar, bones, jugs and other traditional instrumentation, which makes the addition of cello and a beat boxer seem a bit odd – but it is a risk that pays off. The deep mourn of McCalla’s cello lends a sense of gravity to the title track, a song about jobs leaving a North Carolina mill town, while Matta’s percussive sounds and thumping beats provide added texture to Giddens’ spunky “Country Girl.” Jenkins, who started out busking in Brooklyn, is also a welcomed addition, be it adding his vocals to the a cappela “Read ‘Em John,” or showing off his instrumental prowess on “Mahalla,” a South African song that Flemons discovered on YouTube.
Other highlights include Gidden’s blustery take on the bluesy “No Man’s Mama,” a celebration of divorce that showcases her strong vocals. “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man?,” with its rattling bones and frantic fiddling is a complete delight as is the upbeat Celtic sounding, “Run Mountain.” Miller deserves credit for capturing the energy and enthusiasm that the Carolina Chocolate Drops display in their live shows.
On Leaving Eden, Carolina Chocolate Drops move music forward, paying homage to the past while remaining rooted in the present. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable work that challenges our definition of string band music.