Tomorrow Is My Turn by Rhiannon Giddens

rhiannon giddens

by John Ellis

If Kanye insists on continuing to insert himself into other musicians’ shiny, happy moments, I hope that he finds musicians other than Beyonce to promote with his Kanyesque douchery. Look, I’m not knocking Beyonce, but let’s get real; every single Grammy voter is incredibly aware of Beyonce; in fact, several of them have probably paid for Malibu beach homes from monies made off of Beyonce. Instead of an overly-marketed, super-rich superstar, I humbly suggest telling next year’s Album of the Year winner that he or she should respect artistry and give his or her Grammy to Rhiannon Giddens[1]. I’m confident in stating that every single person that I know that is already familiar with Rhiannon Giddens will back me up on this. I’m also confident in stating that Rhiannon Giddens may very well be the best female vocalist gracing the pop oeuvre with her talent, within even the widest definition of “pop” that can be proffered. And, she’s also a multi-instrumentalist.

Having studied opera at her alma mater, Oberlin Conservatory, Giddens vocal proficiency is the real deal. Upon graduating from Oberlin in 2000, Giddens became actively involved in the creation and dissemination of the traditional musical tropes of African-Americans, specifically those musical cultural expressions from the Piedmont region of North Carolina. To that end, in 2005, she co-founded, alongside Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time string band. Besides vocal duties, Rhiannon Giddens also played fiddle and banjo for the Chocolate Drops – very well, I might add[2]. Playing at sold-out venues, opening for Bob Dylan, and winning numerous awards, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, while not finding wide-spread commercial success, are enjoyed and respected by many music lovers. In fact, and undermining my snarky opening paragraph, The Carolina Chocolate Drops won Best Traditional Folk Album at The 53rd Annual Grammys.

Rhiannon Giddens’ first solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, highlights songs that were once vocally owned by singers like Elizabeth Cotton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Patsy Cline, and Nina Simone, among others; and that’s a tricky proposition for even the most proficient singers. When covering songs popularized by the best, the singer runs the risk of having the listener, not only compare, but leave in search of the recordings featuring the past great. This very thing is one of my many hang-ups with popular TV singing competitions. For example, whenever I hear a competitor sing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I immediately have the urge to turn the TV off and actually listen to Queen. You’re going to have to be a phenomenal singer and performer in order to make me forget about Freddy Mercury for those almost six minutes[3]. No matter who she’s covering, Rhiannon Giddens does not have that problem.

Look, I’m having a hard time narrowing down which songs off of Tomorrow Is My Turn to write about, and I can’t write about all eleven of them. Can I? Every time that I get it narrowed it down to three or four, a song not included in that three or four comes on over the speakers and I have to rework my list. The solution, of course, would be to only listen to the songs I’m planning on writing about; but I don’t want to do that. Suffice it to say, there is not a song on the album that fails to highlight not only Giddens’s musical proficiency but also her ability to reshape and interpret musical-stories in compelling ways that burrow inside the listener.

That being said, and quickly before I change my mind[4], here are my three current favorite tracks off of Tomorrow Is My Turn: rhiannon giddens 2“Tomorrow Is My Turn,” “O Love Is Teasin’,” and “Waterboy.”

The title track from the album is an English translation of a French song written by “France’s Frank Sinatra,” Charles Aznavour. A sultry lounge song, Giddens keeps “Tomorrow Is My Turn” from flirting away into the smoke-filled rafters with a vocal pathos that provides a layer of urgency and reality that isn’t usually associated with lounge numbers. Don’t misunderstand, though, the voice of Rhiannon Giddens is beautifully sultry, and “Tomorrow Is My Turn” allows her to demonstrate that there are very few contemporary singers that can match her enchantment with enchantment.

A traditional Irish/British folk song that has been wonderfully claimed by Appalachia, “O Love Is Teasin’” is probably my favorite song on the album. My wife asked me why it’s my favorite song on the album, and I replied, “Because it’s beautiful.” She pressed, “Yeah, but what makes it beautiful?” I kept repeating, “Because it’s beautiful,” and found myself getting annoyed that I was being asked to justify my claim that the song is beautiful. And then I remembered that I’m writing a review. After putting on my serious music reviewer hat, I reached this conclusion about the song, and consider this a copout if you want, but Rhiannan Giddens’ rendition of “O Love Is Teasin’” is a song that needs no further justification than “because it’s beautiful.”[5]

“Waterboy,” a traditional American folk song popularized by Odetta Holmes, who was “the voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” is the one song that I know for sure has to be highlighted. The song is big and requires a big, bold voice that exhibits an unwavering sensitivity. “Waterboy” contains all the best of theatricality, so the singer has to not only have the necessary vocal chops, but must also have the talent of internalizing and then retelling stories that is usually the purview of the best actors. Rhiannon Giddens has all of that, and while “Waterboy” makes for a great showcase, I don’t think that the song takes Giddens to the end of her immense talent. If I allowed myself, I could ramble on for several hundred more words attempting to describe Rhiannon Giddens sing “Waterboy.” Watch her performance on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” Letterman’s “Oh, my!” at the end will probably express your own inability to fully articulate what you just heard. I know that it does for me. Oh, my, indeed!

 

For more information about Rhiannon Giddens, visit her website: http://www.rhiannongiddens.com/


[1] Assuming, of course, that she doesn’t win it out right. But, come on, she won’t. If she does, I promise that I will not only start watching the Grammys, but I will also actually start caring about the Grammys.

[2] My wife and I had the immense pleasure of seeing TCCD at The Handlebar in Greenville, SC. Besides enjoying great music, we both marveled at the musical proficiency of the group – the singing, the banjo playing, and the playing of the bones left us awestruck. That may be the only concert experience that I’ll ever use “awestruck” as a descriptor.

[3] Actually even less, the producers of those TV contests can’t waste that much time on music. You’ll get one verse and the chorus.

[4] Of course, I could change my mind and you would never know.

[5] My wife disagrees. After reading her the paragraph, she said that I needed at least one more adjective besides just “beautiful.” She asked, “Is that the haunting song?” After I affirmed that it is indeed the “haunting song,” she said, “Use ‘haunting,’ then.” Consider it used.

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2 thoughts on “Tomorrow Is My Turn by Rhiannon Giddens

  1. […] It may reveal some microaggression/sexism in me to point this out, but I’ll risk it. The top three albums on this list are from female artists. In fact, out of the fourteen albums, nine of them are either by female artists or bands that prominently feature females. That doesn’t really explain why Tomorrow Is My Turn occupies my top spot, but I’ve already gushed enough about this album in my review. […]

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