On January 4, I listed my top ten albums of 2017 (see the full list at Disc 1088) but that was before I heard this next record. If I had known it then it would have bumped a few of these records down a spot – maybe coming in at #7 or so. This just shows that while “best of” lists may be stuck in time, there is no expiration date for when great music comes into your life.
Disc 1149 is… Freedom Highway
Artist: Rhiannon Giddens
Year of Release: 2017
What’s up with the Cover? Traveling the Freedom Highway is never an easy journey. This one is unpaved and Rhiannon Giddens is walking barefoot.
How I Came To Know It: This album was rated as the top album of 2017 by Penguin Eggs magazine so I decided to give it a listen and see what the fuss was all about.
How It Stacks Up: I only have one Rhiannon Giddens album so it can’t really stack up.
Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5
If you ever want a crash course in black history in America, from slavery through the civil rights movement, and on to modern challenges, you couldn’t do much better than Rhiannon Giddens’ masterpiece, “Freedom Highway.” This is a record filled with stories of courage and love in the face of overwhelming odds. Over 50 memorable minutes it will move you, shame you and inspire you to a better world.
The record’s brilliance starts with its musicianship. Giddens has collected a true A-list of players, collectively capable of ranging through multiple styles that include bluegrass, gospel, Dixieland jazz, and – on one song – even a little spoken word. The record doesn’t just feel like an exploration of the history of African Americans, it is also a love letter to the many musical influences that permeate that journey.
On top of it all is Giddens’ voice; powerful and so laden with emotion I sometimes thought my heart was going to burst with pride. Other times I just needed a good cry. I recommend both experiences.
The album is a carefully curated collection of songs, most are original compositions, but there are also a few choice covers.
The record hits hard out of the gate, with Giddens’ “At the Purchaser’s Option” a song inspired by a slave advertisement selling a 22 year old woman, with the a 9-month child included “at the purchaser’s option.” Yeesh. The dispassionate language of the advertisement (reprinted in the liner notes) is a stark contrast to the anguish of the song as Giddens’ puts herself in the unfortunate shoes of the woman being sold:
“You can take my body, you can take my bones
You can take my blood but not my soul.”
The combination of hurt and rebellion Giddens’ sings these lyrics sets the tone for the whole record. The mix of gospel and bluegrass on “At the Purchaser’s Option” is just one of many tools in Giddens’ toolbox. “Better Get It Right the First Time” is a soul-drenched track with a hip-swaying groove that belies its angry topic of young black men getting shot in the streets in modern America. Giddens shows off her mastery of the pocket, and there is a spoken word section (bordering on rap) from Justin Harrington that fits in gloriously with the horn section and overall groove.
“We Could Fly” is pure folk, and the best song on the record for a pure showcase of Giddens’ vocals. This song will lift your soul. While you won’t fly, the way Giddens’ gently enters each chorus with a sweetness in her tone then quickly builds up to pure power will make you know what it feels like.
The covers are carefully chosen and fit naturally in with the new compositions. On a cover of Mississippi John Hurt’s “The Angels Laid Him Away” brings a light folk lilt to an old blues song, with a critical assist from a moseying guitar pick from Dirk Powell.
Later, Giddens covers “Birmingham Sunday.” This song commemorates four school girls killed in 1963 at the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which had become a focal point for the civil rights movement. In preparing to review this record I checked out Joan Baez’s original as well. It is deeply affecting, but I prefer Giddens’ version, which has a bluesy gospel feel that elevates it a half step higher.
The only elements of the album I didn’t love were purely a case of personal taste. There were some jazzy elements that didn’t grab me, but even these were delivered with excellence and emotional resonance.
This is a record that teaches but never preaches, with an honesty that draws you into its stories like a magnet. With its unflinching look at some of the darker parts of American history the tone could easily have turned angry, but instead it cleaves to a resolute hope. These are tough topics, but at the core of it all there is love and the dream of a better tomorrow.
Best tracks: At the Purchaser’s Option, the Angels Laid Him Away, Birmingham Sunday, Better Get It Right the First Time, We Could Fly, Come Love Come