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Stringband Showdown! Reviews of Carolina Chocolate Drops, Genuine Negro Jig, and The Haints Old-Time Stringband, Shout Monah

Last night in the beach camp, we went a little crazy. See, there were these two CDs in amongst the wreckage, full of some of the best old-timey music this side of a rescue boat. We were so inspired that we found a couple unusually large coconuts and, after we drank our fill of coconut water, made banjos and jugs and guitars out of them.

We didn’t sound quite as good as these two groups. But then, few do.

Left to right: Jason Romero, Pharis Romero, and Erynn Marshall. (Click to visit the group's website.) Photo by Rafe Stefanini.

The Haints Old Time Stringband
Shout Monah
[self-released (2009)]

Old-time trio The Haints Old Time String Band is the Canadian husband-and-wife team of Jason and Pharis Romero with Virginian fiddle player Erynn Marshall. The songs and tunes on their collection Shout Monah sound like they came straight from field recordings of the 1930s, and they are played so deftly that they sound utterly simple—which is, of course, the charm of old-time string band music.

Everything about the record feels handmade and organic. The trio is in perfect sync even when the members change tempos mid-tune (“Devil’s Dream”). Jason’s and Pharis’s vocals are tight and intimate without sounding overly exact. Jason plays (and makes!) the banjos played on the album.

“Authenticity” is a byword with The Haints: The members play violins and guitars from the 1920s and 1930s, use “the right” alternate tunings (all of which are included in the liner notes for the curious) to maintain the essential character of the source recordings, and don’t overdub any of the tracks with extraneous instrumentation. If there were a back porch somewhere in the early years of the last century where three people this good at playing their instruments could be found, their jam sessions would sound just like this.

“Life’s Fortune,” the last tune on the album, is a waltz Marshall wrote for the Romeros’ wedding and the only original, and it is therefore worthy of special mention. It’s the most sophisticated piece on the album, with subtle orchestration featuring a harmony fiddle (courtesy of guest Daniel Lapp) and a counterpoint melody on the banjo, a nice break from the unison playing found throughout much of the album. Even this piece, however, manages to sound ancient and timeless.

The final test of an old-time album is whether it continues and expands the folk repertoire. Here, again, the band does an admirable job: It has been certain to give not just the sources of the material but to recommend its favorite recordings of each. Other banjo and fiddle players and singers should find much material worth mining here.
Shout Monah should please any old-time, bluegrass, or folk fan. [www.thehaints.com]

—Jack Hunter

Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson are the Carolina Chocolate Drops. (Click to visit the group's website.)

Carolina Chocolate Drops
Genuine Negro Jig
[Nonesuch 516995 (2010)]

Since they first came together five years ago, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have emerged as not just a highly entertaining musical act, but also as a living lesson in the history of African-American string bands. Singers and multi-instrumentalists Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson have taken it as their mission to study and revive the faded tradition of the black string bands that once flourished in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, reintroducing the old songs and showing modern audiences how much fun they were through performances full of energy and sparks. At the same time, they sometimes add a modern edge to their music. Both approaches are heard on Genuine Negro Jig, the group’s second release as a trio.

The Drops’ sound is based on simple but lively blends of banjos and fiddles, often with percussion provided by clacking bones. Much of the material here is foot-tapping back-porch party music from the beginning of the last century. Good-time tracks like “Trouble in Your Mind” and “Cornbread and Butter Beans” will bring a smile, as will the old-time jug band sound of “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” complete with a buzzing kazoo solo and a huffing jug marking the beat.

Other songs showcase this trio’s serious side and flair for rootsy innovation. The Drops’ version of “Hit ’Em Up Style” finds R&B singer Blu Cantrell’s beatbox hit redone in neo-old-time style, while they set Tom Waits’ plaintive “Trampled Rose” to a Dixieland banjo strum. The 1940s jazz standard “Why Don’t You Do It Right?” becomes a smoky acoustic torch song; “Kissin’ and Cussin’” is a dark-edged blues with glistening autoharp accompaniment; and the title track, “Snowden’s Jig (Genuine Negro Jig),” is a slow, rhythmic instrumental with a distinct Balkan sound. The biggest surprise is Giddens’ haunting unaccompanied version of the English vampire ballad “Reynadine,” a nod to her parallel interest in music from the British Isles.

Genuine Negro Jig isn’t just a look at history; it’s a mix of old-time string band delights and some intriguing modern fusions. Almost everyone likes chocolate. Anyone who likes good American roots music should enjoy a taste of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. [www.carolinachocolatedrops.com]

—Tom Nelligan (Waltham, MA)

© 2010 DriftwoodMagazine.com, All rights reserved.

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