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Rhiannon Giddens - there is no Other Music Album Reviews

The singer and multi-instrumentalist joins jazz musician Francesso Turrisi for a thoughtful and ambitious album that spans opera, Appalachian bluegrass, gospel, and traditional Italian music.

there is no Other, the sparse collaborative album by Rhiannon Giddens and Francesso Turrisi, doesn’t shine a light on old music; it blocks out the sun entirely, scavenging the darkness for deeper understanding. Giddens is a MacArthur Fellow, a conservatory-trained opera singer, and a multi-instrumentalist with a knack for finding uncanny harmony among distant generations and geographies of music. Turrisi is a jazz composer with concentrations on early baroque and Mediterranean music. On this wide-ranging collection of covers and original material by Giddens, they speak to each others’ strengths, refining century-spanning stories into a broken prayer for unity. The music asks for close listening and contemplation; the space they create is small, with room for all of us.

Giddens’ body of work—including three solo albums, a ballet score, and collaborative projects like Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters—is united by a desire to use everything around her to its fullest communicative potential. As a result, listening to her records can feel like exploring a well-curated home, where every object weighs heavy with meaning. Take, for instance, her banjo. A familiar tool within her favored arenas (folk, bluegrass, old-time music), it serves Giddens as a symbol within a symbol: a custom-made recreation of the 19th-century African American instrument adopted by white musicians and popularized through minstrel shows. She plays it as a reclamation, a way to ensure her music’s history remains inextricable from its delivery. “You’re gonna have things that I never had,” she sings in a gripping rendition of civil rights activist Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Brown Baby.” “Sweetie, you’re gonna live in a better world.” Churning along to the rhythm of Turrisi’s Arabic frame drum, the banjo is a source of droning dissonance and lilting refrains of hope.

Like the best folk music, there is no Other was documented quickly, in just five days, and it consists mostly of first takes. The song selection is thoughtful and ambitious, spanning opera, Appalachian bluegrass, gospel, and traditional Italian music. Pristine and almost confrontationally quiet, the production focuses on the duo’s interplay, as they bore into their songs with earthy severity; on the most elaborate arrangements, they are joined by a cellist. Approaching textures that feel almost gothic, it continues Giddens’ path from her T Bone Burnett-produced debut, 2015’s Tomorrow Is My Turn: a continual refinement of focus that allows her songs to speak for themselves.

With such sparse arrangements, the album’s grandest moments come from Giddens’ vocals. She delivers her originals with the same spirit as more familiar material, like a show-stopping take on “Wayfaring Stranger.” A gospel standard that’s endured hundreds of years (not to mention covers by everyone from Johnny Cash to Ed Sheeran), it’s Giddens’ favorite kind of artifact: wounded but immortal, of unknown origin but with deep roots. She sings the words as though the journey could lead her somewhere pivotal and new, a search for common ground through history’s most haunted corners. Few artists are so fearless and so ravenous in their exploration.

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