Rhiannon Giddens made a name for herself as the cofounder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. That old-timey trio of black musicians changed some perceptions of American folk history, earned her a Grammy and a place in a Denzel Washington movie. In recent years, though, her fellow originals, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons, have left to make solo records and pursue extra-musical interests.
Though Giddens still leads the Drops, that band mostly exists now to support her as she steps into the spotlight under her own name with Tomorrow is My Turn, her high-profile solo debut for Nonesuch Records. Giddens, remember, is a classically trained opera vocalist who has performed with the North Carolina Symphony and a singer who, more recently, has joined the likes of Elvis Costello to create new songs from old Bob Dylan lyrical scraps. She’s not just a folk singer. Perhaps those split ends explain why she’s made such an underwhelming album.
Make no mistake: Giddens’ voice is powerful, more subtle and supple than the sounds that lead so many outfits of current folk posers. But during Tomorrow is My Turn, scatterbrained instrumentation interferes with her most essential element. T Bone Burnett produced the album, but perhaps he and Giddens never thought to edit it, too. Unnecessary elements jockey for attention. There’s the electric guitar that appears and disappears as though on a lark and orchestral string sections that hover flatly in the background. By record’s end, an omnipresent tambourine becomes an infuriating crutch.
The album’s stylistic sprawl doesn’t help. Giddens returns occasionally to the traditional styles upon which she’s built her career. “Shake Sugaree” is sweet and simple; moving to the other side of the Atlantic, “Round About The Mountain” makes good on the Celtic elements that have sometimes appeared in Giddens’ work.
She presses too hard, pushing too many genres into too few spaces. Upbeat gospel number “Up Above My Head” comes wedged between the soulful “She’s Got You” and the jazzy title track. A beatboxed update of the standard “Black is the Color” shifts into a baffling bridge of piano jazz and harmonica pop. It sounds like bumper music for Sesame Street.
Tomorrow is My Turn isn’t without bright spots. On “Waterboy,” Giddens’ signature tone powers a song loaded with attitude. And the stunning title track, made famous by Nina Simone five decades ago, finds Giddens turning Simone’s light original into an emotional powerhouse. Here, the strings work well, reverently cascading behind Giddens’ voice. Mercifully, the tambourine yields to brushed snares. During the song, Giddens asserts that her time in the sun has arrived.
But on the album that takes the tune’s name, she stumbles into the admission that she’s not ready for this big solo bow. It’s as if she’s hesitant to cut ties entirely from traditional music but unsure just how to do so. A feeling of “pretty and pretty is pretty” presides here, making the record feel less like the cohesive presentation of a singular artist and more like a showcase for the different aspects for one admittedly talented technician.