Based out of Durham, North Carolina, the Carolina Chocolate Drops entered the broader consciousness with an old-time string band rendition of the Blu Cantrell song “Hit ‘em Up Style (Oops!)” and grew from there. Their 2010 release, Genuine Negro Jig, earned the group a Grammy.
The follow-up to that album, and the band’s third release, is Leaving Eden. It features more of the same authenticity fans have come to expect from Carolina Chocolate Drops and an expanded line-up to boot.
Founding members Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens have brought multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins, beatboxer Adam Matta and cellist Leyla McCalla into the fray, fleshing out their sweaty, high-energy tone. Using instruments like the four-string banjo, five-string banjo, fiddle, kazoo, tambourine, guitar, jug, harmonica, snare drum, and quills, Carolina Chocolate Drops espouse a old-fashioned style forged largely by North Carolina’s legendary but elusive fiddler Joe Thompson.
Thompson passed away a week before the release of Leaving Eden at the age of 93, but something tells me he would’ve dug the hell out of this record.
Delving into traditional pre-blues black music is a challenge, especially when it comes to selling the jigs and old-timey jug band numbers to a larger audience. But Carolina Chocolate Drops make no bones about their passion for the music found on grimy pages and behind the wall of history, engaging with full-throttle jams, wit and heaps of wholesome soul.
Leaving Eden is what happens when history meets modern style. Carolina Chocolate Drops aren’t purists by design, even if their respect for string band music guides the process extensively.
Take “Country Girl,” a track that comes infused with punches of modern country music, soul and hip hop. Rhiannon handles the vocals, displaying her extraordinary range and unadulterated oomph. Or there’s the lovely pensiveness of the title track, complete with stylish cello and staggering vocals.
The band passes instruments and vocal duties around, mixing up the routine frequently. “I Truly Understand that You Love Another Man” features male and female vocals in a rompin’ and stompin’ barn burner, while Flemons handles the run on Ben Curry’s spirited “Boodle-De-Bum-Bum” before he’s joined by other players on the chorus.
Leaving Eden may be lean, unfussy and raw to the bone, but there’s nothing unsophisticated about these arrangements or the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They play with full hearts and leave it all on the floor, winning every step of the way and drawing out tradition with a good solid coat of modern cool.