Review: Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway

Rhiannon Giddens’ second solo record, Freedom Highway, could have just as easily have been born as protest songs sung beside a campfire or from the wraparound porch of family farmhouse during the great depression. Her records are timeless and her sound is as old as the country itself. She speaks in phrases that recall a previous lifetime, despite the fact that her plotlines are just a relevant in 2017 as they were in 1917.

More pointed is the political and historical overtones of the record. The album takes a white-knuckle stronghold on the reality of the repressive storyline of the African American community, both today and throughout history. Giddens comes out swinging. “Know thy history,” Giddens reminds. “Let it horrify you; let it inspire you.”

She flawlessly does just that throughout Freedom Highway.

The albums opener for “At The Purchasers Option,” for example, references a slave advertisement from the 1830s for a young woman and her 9 month old child, who is also available “At The Purchasers Option.” “Come Love Come” tackles families torn apart and lives spitefully sown back together following a life of slavery met with eventual freedom. The heartbreakingly blunt tracks are joined by two early civil war era songs, the righteous, Baptist church choir reminiscent “Birmingham Sunday,” originally written about a 1963 church bombing in the state which killed four black girls, and the title track, “Freedom Highway,” originally performed by The Staple Singers.

“Better Get It Right The First Time” dives further into repression, placing her police violence narrative over vintage big band horns. The contrast between Giddens’ old fashioned R&B swagger and Justin Harrington’s updated rap verse creates an undeniably interesting combination,  reinforcing why Giddens’ resumé boasts multiple Grammys.

The album is alarming and imperative for speaking certainties necessary to progress the lives of many forward. Her vibrant storytelling and candid voice is not only obligatory in today’s hateful and oppressive political climate, but important in a society still in denial that repression is a problem.

For that very reason, Freedom Highway might be the most important Americana album of 2017.

Purchase Freedom Highway

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