Album Review – Rhiannon Giddens’ ‘Freedom Highway’


Rhiannon Giddens is undoubtedly one of the most talented artists in Americana today. The front woman of the Carolina Chocolate Drops might be mistaken as new by fans introduced to her via her appearance on Eric Church’s current single “Kill A Word.” But I assure you she’s been making music for a while and is an artist I consider essential listening for Americana fans. Her voice is absolutely enthralling and impressed from my first listen of her debut album Tomorrow Is My Turn. That was an album of covers, so I was looking forward to hear an album of mostly original material, which is exactly what we get on her new album Freedom Highway. There was a reason I’ve had my eye on this album and man does it live up to the high expectations I had for it.

Slow, rhythmic drums play in the decidedly folk “At The Purchaser’s Option.” It’s a song about a woman raped by an owner at an early age, leading to her conceiving a child out of the assault. But she’s reminded that her baby can be taken at any moment at the purchaser’s option. It’s an incredibly powerful song that can take on multiple meanings. “The Angels Laid Him Away” is a cover of Mississippi John Hurt’s song. It’s a solemn song about death that shows off Giddens’ beautiful voice, as well as her great banjo picking. The bluegrass driven “Julie” is about a mistress and slave being in love, but the slave finding out later the mistress has sold her children. It’s another emotional story on an album full of them. Not to mention the instrumentation really sets the tone of the song and draws the listener in. Giddens does a fantastic job covering Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday.” The song is about the 16th Street Baptist church in 1963 being bombed by members of the KKK that ended up killing four girls and 22 others.

It’s kind of hard to pick the best song on this incredibly deep album. But if I had to pick one it would be “Better Get It Right the First Time.” The funky sounding song is about a young African-American man mistakenly ending up at the wrong place and getting gunned down as he ran. It demonstrates how African-Americans are expected to walk a tight rope and get it right the first time, or there won’t be another time. Giddens’ nephew Justin Harrington comes in later in the song and lays down a rap to make an already excellent song better. The softer “We Could Fly” tells of flying home after death. It’s a very much a spiritual, meditative reflection of finding peace and freedom. Giddens dives into smooth and upbeat New Orleans style jazz on “Hey Bébé.” It’s probably the happiest moment on this album, as it’s an instant toe-tapper and the horn play is top-notch.

“Come Love Come” is about a slave couple on the run trying to outrun their captors and just trying to live their lives together. The song ends with the woman waiting for her man to arrive in Tennessee, hopeful he one day makes it to her. We get more jazzy goodness on “The Love We Almost Had.” It’s about love that almost was and leaving both sides wondering what if on the possible relationship. The forever fleeting love song is another standout on the album. The somber “Baby Boy” is about a mother vowing to always watch over her son. The song features some wonderful harmonies from Giddens and Lalenja Harrington that impress. The instrumental “Following the North Star” plays in the album’s title track, a Pops Staples song, to close out the record. Giddens duets with fellow Americana artist Bhi Bhiman on this energetic anthem about marching down the highway of freedom. Some lively horns appropriately play out the song and end the album with a real exclamation point.

To be honest I really don’t feel like my words do justice to this magnificent album. Rhiannon Giddens’ Freedom Highway is a flawless album from start to finish. The songwriting and themes explored on this album are incredibly powerful and graceful. Giddens voice is golden as always and I can’t believe how many different genres this album explores. There’s folk, bluegrass, blues, funk, hip-hop, soul and jazz. Each are executed wonderfully and show the true definition of Americana (a big credit goes to multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell). This is absolutely one best albums you’ll hear all year and may even go down as the very best of 2017.

Grade: 10/10


Recommend? – YES!

Album Highlights: Better Get It Right the First Time, At The Purchaser’s Option, We Could Fly, Julie, The Love We Almost Had, Freedom Highway

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None

Album Review – Sunny Ozell’s ‘Take It With Me’

Sunny Ozell Take It With Me

What is Americana? This is question I see posed fairly often and it can be a tough one to answer. Americana after all isn’t a concrete sound like (actual) country, rock or hip-hop. Americana is a melting pot of different genres that come together to create a true vision of artistry and music. But really I think the best answer to this question is this: you will know Americana when you hear it. And I can certainly hear it with Sunny Ozell. Not a big surprise when she says two of her biggest influences are Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, two Americana stalwarts. Ozell lived and breathed music from an early age, receiving classical voice training, studying the Suzuki method of classical violin and having music loving parents who listened to the likes of The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Janis Joplin. Ozell has been involved with various music projects in various genres throughout her life, playing a lot of jazz. But on her new album she wanted to explore everything, hence why it’s strictly covers of some of her favorites. It’s to lay the foundation for her next album.

“I’ve always written songs…and bits of songs,” Ozell says. “This first project represents me pulling together a band. It’s a very collaborative effort, and we really found our footing as a unit. It gave me a platform for my voice. I’m putting together the scraps and the ideas for the next album. The ideas I’m writing come in snapshots. I’ll have a phrase or rhyme scheme and build around that.”

Ozell really truly loves and has a passion for music, as her whole life revolves around it. Of course a lot of people know her as the wife of actor Sir Patrick Stewart. But as she embarks on her music career she’s trying to be known for her music too. If her debut album Take It With Me is a good indicator of what’s to come, then she’s well on her way to being known as an Americana artist too.

The breezy and easy-going Leon Russell song “Manhattan Serenade” opens up the album. The song is very much in the bluesy, jazz sonic range and allows Ozell to really show off her more bubbly side. One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Family Tree.” The Julian Velard song really suits Ozell’s voice well and allows her to flex her vocal range. The inclusion of the xylophone in the bridge really adds an appropriate reflective tone to the song. This is definitely one of the songs you must hear off the album. Next is “Move Along Train,” one of the iconic songs of well-known American Soul and R&B artist Pops Staples. I can see why Ozell would choose the song, but it doesn’t really seem to suit her style as well as other songs on the album. This song is more suited for an artist with a lower register. Ozell’s performance isn’t bad, but not one of the better ones on the album.

The softer “Louisiana 1927” is more in Ozell’s range. While I’m not that fond of singer-songwriter Randy Newman, I find this is one of his best songs and I’m glad Ozell chose it. For those not familiar, “Louisiana 1927” is about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. I really applaud Ozell for taking a country approach to the song, as the steel guitar throughout really goes with the lyrics perfectly. Up next is one of two original songs on the album, the Aaron Lee Tasjan-written “Git Gone.” Ozell tackles the song written by the folk rock artist with absolute gusto. It’s an upbeat, fun song that has a carefree nature that will easily hook you in. The dreamy “Kill Zone” follows. T Bone Burnett and Roy Orbison wrote this song together, weeks before Orbison died, and is believed to be the last song he wrote. Again Ozell takes a more country approach, as you can hear plenty of steel guitar throughout combined with the piano. This is one of Ozell’s best vocal performances on the album.

“Number One” is another Tasjan-written song. The song is about struggling to live with a spouse who spends more time doing stuff like smoking than loving their significant other. It’s a heartbreak ballad that slowly unwinds itself and the more I’ve listened to it, the more I’ve enjoyed it. It’s one of those songs that take time to grow, but once it does you can really connect with it. Ozell goes in a more pop direction on “Only in the Movies.” It’s a David Mead song, a pop artist based out of Nashville. The song is about how relationships in real life don’t make sense and end how they should, only in the movies. It’s a pretty straightforward song. The same can pretty much be said for “No One is to Blame,” a song by English soft rock artist Howard Jones. The song is about being attracted or in love with someone, yet you can’t do anything about it. Your attitude towards this song will probably be dictated by your feelings towards new wave music of the 80s, which most people either love or hate.

Ozell tackles the Hank Williams song “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You” next. British folk/alt-country artist Teddy Thompson joins her on the song. Thompson is the son of Americana artist Richard Thompson. As someone who has never heard a Hank Williams song he didn’t like, I of course enjoyed Ozell’s version. Once again this country/folk sound really suits her well and I think I would like to hear more from her in this vein. Take It With Me closes out with the Tom Waits song and album’s title track. “Take It With Me” is a soft, somber love ballad that really can tug at your heartstrings. It’s a Waits song, so of course it cuts deep. It’s a beautiful song that suits a beautiful voice like Ozell’s.

Take It With Me is the kind of album any music fan can pick up and enjoy. Ozell really does a great job picking some of the masters of each genre to cover on the album and proves to be up to the task in doing the songs justice. It should be noted too that the album has two bonus track worth checking out, Ray Charles’ “Come Back Baby” and Hanks’ “I Saw The Light.” You might not like every song on this album, but when an album jumps around to a lot of genres this tends to be the case. There’s something for everyone on this album, but really I thought Ozell shined best on the folk/country-driven tracks. I hope on her next album with original material that she goes in this direction, as her voice has that smooth, yet earthy tone that goes well with steel guitar. Sunny Ozell may be well versed in classical and jazz music, but she fits like a glove with Americana.

Grade: 8/10