Rhiannon Giddens, ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’ – Album Review
For a certain type of listener, the name T Bone Burnett has become synonymous with high-quality Americana -- records guaranteeing a level of musicianship, song selection and sensitive production that offers a reliable palate cleanser against machine-driven Top 40 pop. For other fans of the genre, however, Burnett's come to be seen as something of a one-trick pony -- a guy who traffics in the sort of utterly pleasant acoustic-based noise that goes well with NPR and a cup of coffee, but leaves out the grit and the darkness the songs truly deserve.
Burnett produced 'Tomorrow Is My Turn,' the debut solo effort from Carolina Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens, and his involvement is worth noting because the album ends up reinforcing both sides of the debate; in some respects, it serves as a breath of fresh air, offering occasionally novel new takes on songs reinterpreted with courage and skill, while in others, it stops disappointingly short of the mark, settling for "nice" where a little more of that grit could have gone a long way.
Where they exist, the album's flaws are magnified because Giddens is -- at least conceptually -- attempting something exciting with 'Tomorrow Is My Turn,' offering her take on 10 songs popularized by female performers and capping them with one original number, 'Angel City.' Considering that she's pulling from some pretty hefty songbooks here, covering cuts heavily identified with Sister Rosetta Tharpe ('Up Above My Head'), Nina Simone (the title track), and Dolly Parton ('Don't Let It Trouble Your Mind'), this is all fairly audacious, and she's making a rather large statement simply by trying to pull it off.
In purely vocal terms, Giddens absolutely delivers -- and while anyone who's heard her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops won't be surprised to know she's got the chops to carry just about any material, 'Tomorrow' still serves as an impressively authoritative calling card for the hefty range and depth of her singing. It isn't uncommon for a debut solo artist to work overtime trying to explore and expose as many different facets of their personality as possible, and Giddens definitely does that here; what's surprising is how well it works, and how marvelously confident she sounds whether she's taking a smoothly strident approach (as she does on the title track) or keeping things breezy and playful (her take on 'Shake Sugaree').
As entertainment, it works. But as the statement the material suggests in sum -- essentially a feminist history of America put to song -- it's more of a mixed bag. Burnett's production, while varied enough to keep things interesting, also keeps things safe; Giddens' vocals are full of the emotion the songs require, but the arrangements settle into a sepia groove that eventually deepens into a sonic rut.
Make no mistake: 'Tomorrow Is My Turn' is not a bad album by any stretch, and it definitely offers Giddens a chance to show off plenty of what she's capable of as a singer. But you come away feeling as though it merely hints at what she can do as an artist -- and wondering what might have happened had a wilder producer been holding the reins. Here's hoping we have a chance to hear more from her soon.