words by Eric Engelbart
The Carolina Chocolate Drops have proven to be a bit of an anomaly in their illustrious career. Their sound is anachronistic, as they are a highly trained old-time string band revisiting the sounds of 1930’s Carolinas. They are roots music revivalists who never fail to push the envelope, without ever compromising their resonance to traditional folk music. With the release of their new album Leaving Eden [Nonesuch], the Chocolate Drops continue to produce earnest, inventive, and admirable music.
Leaving Eden marks the first Carolina Chocolate Drops album without founding member Justin Robinson. The multi-instrumentalist Robinson ventured out on his own after completing the tour for the group’s last album, 2010’s Genuine Negro Jig.
That album marked the biggest commercial success for the group, and also won them a Grammy for best traditional folk album. The album contained a remake of Blu Cantrell’s single “Hit Em’ Up Style,” performed in a bluegrass style, with Robinson beat-boxing and singer Rhiannon Giddens passionately howling the Beyonce-esque lyrics. The track helped the Chocolate Drops build notoriety and a diverse fan base. The group somehow managed to keep the track from sounding derivative or gimmicky, a difficult feat to achieve while genre-jumping.
With Robinson’s exit, the group added a few new members before the recording of Leaving Eden. Robinson is a prodigious talent, and it took three new musicians to replace him. Adam Matta was added to the group to replicate Robinson’s beat-boxing, and Hubby Jenkins joined to play guitar and banjo. The group also added Leyla McCalla, a talented cellist from New Orleans to the roster for their current tour.
Between remaining founding members Giddens and Dom Flemons, the Carolina Chocolate Drops do not miss a beat on Leaving Eden. Every track showcases the ingenuity and musicianship that has come to be expected from the band.
Leaving Eden is speckled with numerous highlights. “Country Girl” recaptures the funky, catchy, bouncy genius of “Hit Em’ Up Style.” The somber title track showcases McCalla’s cello, while Giddens croons from the point of view of a parent in the war-torn south of the 1920s. Another standout is the remarkable cover of slavery-era ring shout tune “Read ‘Em John,” with Flemons leading the call and response.
The most profound moment on the album is the final track, “Pretty Bird.” The track (originally composed by the legendary folk artist Hazel Dickens) is composed solely of Giddens’ gorgeous, resounding vocals. The album ends with Giddens singing: “So fly away little pretty bird/Where the cold winter winds don’t go.” The line encapsulates the warm and comforting space cultivated by the Carolina Chocolate Drops on Leaving Eden. The album establishes an atmosphere and captures an aesthetic that the listener will want to revisit time and time again.