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Tuesday Reviewsday: Rhiannon Giddens, Ibibio Sound Machine and more

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Group shot of the Colombian collective known as Ondatrópica
Group shot of the Colombian collective known as Ondatrópica

If you're like a lot of us, you love music, but don't have the time to keep up with what's new.

If you're like a lot of us, you love music, but don't have the time to keep up with what's new.

And that's why we made Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our critics join our hosts in the studio to give you some tips on good, new stuff. Joining us this week, music journalist Steve Hochman, here's his picks: 

Artist: Rhiannon Giddens (Album: “Freedom Highway”)

Songs: Julie, Better Get It Right the First Time

For her second solo album, Rhiannon Giddens takes the title from, and closes the set with, Pops Staples’ classic gospel anthem of the civil rights movement, a perfect epilogue for the songs that come before it. “Freedom Highway” is an album of vivid tales of people and signposts from that often rough road, a journey from the darkest days of slavery, starting with chilling opening song “At the Purchaser’s Option,” to the tensions and divisions that persist today.

Now, if that sounds pedantic, the songs are anything but. This is not a literal history lesson, but a literary one. And it’s told on such a poetically personal level that, though Giddens wrote or co-wrote all but the Staples’ song and “The Angels Laid Him Away” (by Mississippi John Hurt), you might swear that they were adaptations of songs written in the moment and on-site by people who lived inside the struggles.

Most involving and gripping in that regard is “Julie,” a song that Giddens has made the movingly emotional centerpiece of her shows for the couple of years, the lyrics drawn from a story in Andrew Ward’s book “The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves.”

Here, with her own minstrel-era banjo and Louisiana musician Dirk Powell’s fiddle accompanying her richly controlled singing, she takes the voice of the slave whose owner is frantic as victorious Union forces are marching onto her estate. The owner pleads with her slave to stay with her, even offering her money — riches, the titular Julie notes, that came from the mistress having sold her slave’s children. It’s not sung as delicious irony, or turnabout justice. It’s about survival of the unimaginable, as human as it gets.

Her expansive, tour-de-force, T-Bone Burnett-produced 2015 solo debut “Tomorrow Is My Turn” honored strong women in music, from obscure 1920s blues singer Geeshie Wylie to Nina Simone and Dolly Parton. It was a challenge Giddens met with aplomb, investing each song not just with her considerable vocal talents but with deep connection to the material.

As “Julie” shows, this album too honors strong women, with an even deeper, more intimate connection. That’s not just a matter of the writing and her performances, but of the overall sounds, closer to her folk-rooted work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, deriving from African-American string band traditions. Co-produced by Giddens and Powell, “Freedom Highway” is marked by its earthiness.

But it’s not all folkie, and it’s not all old history. “Better Get It Right First Time” is a chilling tale from the streets of Ferguson, or Los Angeles or any number of communities, of a young man, a “good man,” shot down by police. It’s told both by Giddens and in a middle section by spoken-word artist Justin Harrison, their confusion and pain accented by increasingly intense music, driven by a soul horn section. Giddens here takes the role of mother/sister/friend, trying to stave off numbness in the face of so many deaths.

Artist: Ibibio Sound Machine (Album: “Uyai”)

Song: Give Me a Reason

Take what could pass as a remix of prime ‘80s Anglo-dance-pop — the Thompson Twins, Human League, that sort of thing — and add powerful, frisky vocals from Eno Williams, a woman who draws heavily on her heritage from and singing largely in the language of the Ibibio people of southwestern Nigeria.

It shouldn’t work, at least beyond some sort of culture-clash novelty factor. And it certainly shouldn’t sound forward-thinking in 2017. But “Uyai,” by London’s Ibibio Sound Machine, is a remarkably compelling, engaging, fun and, yes, forward album, at times an epiphany, even.

It’s particularly head-turning when this upbeat cross-cultural dance-floor meld carries a serious message, as in the opening song “Give Me a Reason,” in which Williams sings heartfelt pleas for the freedom of the 276 young Chibok school girls kidnapped in 2014 by factions of the Boko Haram group and still largely missing. “Mother and Father are still trying to make sense of it all,” she sings, in Ibibio, of a tragedy for which there is no sense. Many of the songs come from tales of Nigerian life handed down to London-born Williams from her family, with a focus on the strength of women.

Rather than make for an odd juxtaposition, though, knowing what the lyrics are about gives the celebratory tone even more power. And at the same time, the musical frills bring ISM to new sonic territories far beyond the excellent, but more standard Anglo-Afrofunk of its 2014 debut album. Not that there was anything wrong with that — videos from various concerts and festival appearances around that time show the band tremendously exciting with its punchy horns driving the mix, and Williams as a frenetic, kinetic force on stage. But now it has a sound of true distinction.

Artist: Ondatrópica (Album: “Baile Bucanero”)

Songs: “Hummingbird,” “Malaria”

Tucked into the many delights of the 2012 debut from the multi-generational Colombian collective dubbed Ondatrópica was a real surprise: Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” reworked as burbly cumbia shuffle. It was a little in-joke, or two in-jokes, really. On one level it was a nod to the fact that one the project’s organizers, Will Holland a.k.a. Quantic, is a British transplant, and some funding for the endeavor came from the British Council. On the other, it gave at least a little perspective on some of what was going on elsewhere at the time many of the musicians in the group were at the center of what some see as the golden age of Columbian popular music, combining traditional rhythms and sounds with modern rock and funk for the historic Discos Fuentes label.

But the real trick was that “I Ron Man,” as it was called, simply worked. If you didn’t recognize the melody or read the credits, you might have taken it for a real Colombian cumbia.

So, naturally, one might have an ear out for similar sneakiness on this second recorded outing. Well, don’t bother. There’s no “Smoke on the Water” hidden in the riffs or anything. But there are plenty of other cultures and styles represented. Well, the album title, which translates as “The Pirate Dance” or “The Dancing Pirate,” suggest there’s some plunder going in. But its done with such deftness and glee, and in keeping with the streams of many cultures representing in modern Colombia, that it all works.

And once again it comes naturally from the very nature of the project as conceived and squired by Holland and Bogota native Mario Galeano, the two writing most of the material, with a total of 35 musicians involved. Back again are some Discos Fuentes veterans, including saxophonist Michi Sarmiento and timbales wizard Wilson Viveros, and new-generation percussionist Juan “Chongo” Puello. And this time it was done in two complementary environments, some songs recorded in urban Bogota, others with a group of core members on the idyllic Colombian Caribbean island Providencia, a locale rich in African, English and Spanish heritages. Per reports by Holland and Galeano, rum was involved in the latter sessions.

“Hummingbird,” one of the singles released ahead of the albums early March due date, has a bit of an Afro-Cuban feel with swaying rhythms and breezy horns.

The, well, fevered tone of “Malaria” mimics electronica beats with organic percussion. “Come Back Again,” some reggae with tropical hip-hop undertones, leads into the traditional Latin American clip-clop rhythms and Holland’s wheezy accordion of “Soy Campesino.” “Bogota,” written by Sarmiento in the early ‘70s but never before recorded, is here basically West African highlife. But then, the quasi-title piece, “Cumbia de los Bucaneros,” plays it pretty straight. Not that there’s anything completely straightforward with these dancing buccaneers, except for their own infectious sense of delight.

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