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First Listen: Rhiannon Giddens, 'Tomorrow Is My Turn'

Rhiannon Giddens' new album, <em>Tomorrow Is My Turn</em>, comes out Feb. 10.
Courtesy of the artist
Rhiannon Giddens' new album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, comes out Feb. 10.

What does it take for a work of art to become an intervention? In music, any reinterpretation alters the original, if only because different fingerprints touch it. But certain lineages — folk music, for example — are built on the bones of those retellings. Whoever owns a song for a period of time connects it to her lived experience and the world in which she lives, and it changes. It might also change the world, or a small part of it. This is the political power of the single voice: not to dictate or even necessarily cajole, but to state truths from a different perspective that shows earlier tellings to be shockingly incomplete. The song opens up and receives this new information; listeners hear it and realize something fresh about their own lives. They may even be compelled to act.

Tomorrow Is My Turn, the first solo album by Carolina Chocolate Drops singer, violinist and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens, makes this kind of intervention into the history of folk-inflected popular music. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, it's a scrupulously selected, richly realized collection of songs spanning American music's history of communal uplift, individual outcry, happy collaboration and profitable theft. Tomorrow Is My Turn tells the story of how songs become crucial through certain performances that take them somewhere beyond their origin points. Giddens responds to these performances with highly nuanced, sometimes theatrical, always personal readings of her own, presenting an alternative history of folk and popular music that's particularly appropriate for today.

The title track was her impetus. Originally the theme to a 1962 film about French prisoners of war during WWII — sung by that philosopher of comme ci, comme ca Charles Aznavour — it was quickly reclaimed by Nina Simone and became an expression of both determination and rage. Within an arrangement that's more elegant European pop than jazz, Giddens preserves Simone's fierceness but also mellows it, making it a stealth declaration of resilience. Deeply pleasurable to relax into, Giddens' version of "Tomorrow Is My Turn" shows that political spark can arise even in music meant to soothe. In fact, that self-soothing is an essential part of survival.

Elsewhere, Giddens shakes listeners right out of their complacency. Her version of "Waterboy," a set piece for the great folksinger Odetta, lands its message of enforced labor like a hammer. This version's intensity recalls the amazing recent take on Max Roach's "Driva Man" by Alabama Shakes, showing how younger African-American artists are reclaiming the art song as a form of protest. Equally invigorating is the spiritual "Round About The Mountain," in a spare banjo-driven arrangement that allows Giddens to both show off her pristine, classically-trained tone and honor the important and often overlooked history of African-American art-song specialists like the soprano Florence Quivar.

Amid all these pointed messages, Giddens still leaves room to dance. Of the dozens of versions of that old coffeehouse special "Black Is The Color," it's hard to find one like hers: Rocked-up with New Orleans flavor and a modest club beat, it excavates the sexiness in a song too often sung like a church hymn. Then there's the actual church music Giddens includes: a reading of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's signature gospel stomper "Up Above My Head" that hews close to the original, because for joy, Tharpe can't be beat.

The album's liner notes explain the logic of each selection, as Giddens builds her alternate pantheon of folk-music greats. They include familiar figures like Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton (and, implicitly, Joan Baez, since Giddens' rendition of Parton's "Don't Let It Trouble Your Mind" sounds like Baez kissing off Bob Dylan) and obscure ones like the blues pioneer Geeshie Wiley. Only one song here is an original: the gentle, lilting "Angel City," which in fact is about the creative act of putting together this album, and how it humbled and strengthened Giddens and her collaborators.

Though she didn't write most of these songs, Giddens owns them on Tomorrow Is My Turn. Burnett's neat, idea-driven production can sometimes dominate the voices at the center of his albums, but Giddens will not be hemmed in. She shows herself in constant dialogue with the arrangements she settled on with Burnett and the many skilled musicians they brought into the studio. Her voice — mobile, intelligent, ready to talk back to anyone's presumptions — is always at the center here, guiding the story. Let me be the first to say it: Today is Rhiannon Giddens' turn.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.