REVIEW: Rhiannon Giddens “They’re Calling Me Home” is Always Beautiful


When the aliens finally come to Earth, I hope they’re musically inclined. Because, if they bring an instrument with them and happen upon Rhiannon Giddens, she’ll have it mastered within half an hour of meeting. The singer-songwriter-banjo player-writer of fancy things like ballets and operas can truly do anything. Most recently, she’s paired with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. The couple’s new project, They’re Calling Me Home, is a collection of folk and traditional songs, along with a couple of original compositions, that reflect the isolation, death and, yes, love we’ve all encountered over the past year.

Giddens and Turrisi live part-time in Ireland, but, as of March 2020, it’s been more of a full-time situation due to pandemic shutdowns. The pair took advantage of the time and the inspiration that surrounded them to produce a record that’s often sad, occasionally joyful, and always beautiful. The first song, a haunting version of American singer-banjoist Alice Gerrard’s “Calling Me Home,” has a bit of all three. With Giddens playing octave viola and Turrisi (also immensely gifted on a wide range on instruments) providing a mournful accordion line, the song is somber, but also finds solace in death – “I know you’d love for me to stay/But I miss my friends from yesterday.” With all of the suffering the world has endured over the past year, there’s an odd comfort to be found in natural, welcomed departure.

“Avalon,” composed by Giddens, Turrisi and Justin Robinson (with whom Giddens played in The Carolina Chocolate Drops) is more upbeat and features interplay between Giddens and Congolese artist Niwel Tsumbu on nylon string guitar. A rendition on “I Shall Not Be Moved” features Giddens on the instrument we know her best from, banjo, and Turrisi on chitarra battente, a sort of Italian rhythm guitar. Giddens’ passion and added lyrics turn this hymn of steadfastness into a steely protest song.

Another form of resistance, this time against death, is found in the spiritual “O Death.” The liner notes mention nothing other than Giddens’ vocals and Turrisi’s frame drum, but the song itself is deep, passionate and pissed. Giddens isn’t asking for more life – “Spare me over ‘til another year” – she’s outright demanding it. And Turrisi’s playing here, as with many places on They’re Calling Me Home, is nothing short of melodic.

Of all her talents and pursuits (musicianship, songwriting, and scholarship, among others), Giddens’ least-mentioned attribute may be the simple beauty of her voice. On “When I Was in My Prime,” her singing is angelic and heartbreaking at the same time. “Nenna Nenna” is a traditional Italian lullaby that Turrisi sang to his daughter, and Giddens was able to talk him into making his recorded singing debut for this record – their unaccompanied duet is simple and gorgeous. And the pair’s take on “Amazing Grace” is like no version you’ve heard – Giddens’ impassioned humming, along with Turrisi’s frame drum and Emer Mayock’s uilleann pipes (an Irish, more subtle version of bagpipes), turns a hymn that can be, well, a bit preachy into a wordless song of strength and resolve. After hearing this, even those aliens I mentioned above might get religion.

Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live – “When I Was in My Prime.” Along with her stunning vocals, Giddens plays a sweet octave viola solo. I played viola all the way through high school, but never like this.

They’re Calling Me Home was produced by Giddens and Turrisi, recorded and mixed by Ben Rawlins and mastered by Kim Rosen. Additional musicians on the album include Niwel Tsumbu (nylon string guitar) and Emer Mayock (Irish flute, uilleann pipes).

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