It’s been a few years since Rhiannon Giddens did anything remotely in the ballpark of a “pop” album, and it’s not hard to come up with reasons for that: Besides her having a full dance card, you could almost argue she’s overqualified for the job. The recipient of both a MacArthur “genius grant” and a Pulitzer, the banjo-wielding balladeer has sustained herself for a while at the intersection of earthy and highbrow, most recently winning acclaim for her opera, “Omar,” and she looks at least at much at home fronting the LA Phil as she used to leading the old-fashioned string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Her recorded output in the last few years has focused on superb collaborations with her partner, Francesco Turrisi, emphasizing the sounds of Ireland and Italy. Naturally, she hosts a PBS series and dips her intellectual toe into educational books and webcasts. Who needs to swing, when you’re the embodiment of musical academia, or practically a Grammy Award in human form?
But swing Giddens does on “You’re the One,” her first solo album in six years, and it’s good to hear her loosen up in the realm of all-American music again, even if there hasn’t been anything remotely regrettable about her other far-reaching endeavors. Here she’s written or co-written all the material on a record for the first time, but it’s not exactly a turn toward a traditional singer-songwriter direction. Neither does the introduction of Jack Splash as her new producer bring any significant move toward contemporary R&B, even though his pedigree is mostly in the realm of Alicia Keys and Solange. Instead, it’s as if Giddens made a record of original material that she deliberately wanted to have mistaken for an album of standards covers — dipping into an array of 20th century styles with songs that sound like they might have been borrowed from someone else’s songbook, be it the Great American one or the catalogs of blues or bluegrass or soul. The common thread is that she sounds like she’s having fun, skipping through these eras and genres. It’s all still fit for a pledge drive, but Giddens is pledging her fealty to the spirit that made all these forms of music a kick in the pants in their heyday.
The title track begins with some of her signature banjo plucking, but quickly turns into a soft-rock love song, while “Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad” veers toward Rufus’ funky side of the ‘70s street. From there she’s mostly going further backward to move ahead: strings-laded torch songs, with “Wrong Kind of Right” and “Who Are You Dreaming Of,” the former touching on classic R&B and the latter landing more in Tin Pan Alley; New Orleans roadhouse flair with the frisky “You Put the Sugar in My Bowl”; a detour deeper into Cajun country with “You Louisiana Man.” The most modern production touches arrive on the brooding “Another Wasted Life,” a protest song about the unlawful incarceration of a Black man on Rikers Island. That song’s cheerful antithesis is “Yet to Be,” with the album’s lone featured guest, Jason Isbell, sounding all but unrecognizable singing his way through such playfully jolly musical climes. And there’s a bit of jazzy scat in the henhouse of the feminist anthem “Hen in the Foxhouse.”
The powerful purity of Giddens’ soprano is something that can’t be hidden under a bushel, or roughed up just to go gritty; you do sometimes feel like you’re listening to Leontyne Price sing the blues. Which is actually a pretty promising construct. Giddens fans have happily followed her down the paths of world music and even opera, and there won’t be many objections if, for our most accomplished musical journeywoman, her maps now bring her back closer to Bristol, Virginia, or to Bourbon or Beale Streets.