Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, Carolina Chocolate Drops

A bit of a respite from underground jams today, with a couple of very different takes on folk.

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A bit of a respite from underground jams today, with a couple of very different takes on folk.

First up is “St Patricio”, which comes billed as by The Chieftains Featuring Ry Cooder, but feels more like a Cooder album where the chief musical guests – the house band, maybe – are The Chieftains. It tells the story of a battalion of Irish soldiers fighting in the Mexican/American war of 1846-48, who deserted their posts in the US army and chose to fight with the Mexicans instead.

Much in the vein of Cooder’s superb “Chavez Ravine”, “St Patricio” is a sort of rollicking audio documentary, founded on a bizarre but serendipitous fusing of Irish instrumentation and Mexican folk music. The Chieftains’ musical career, as far as I know it, can occasionally slip into a sort of Emerald Isle schmaltz, but they’re a much more adventurous band than most would assume, and a tremendous force when in full flight, as they are for most of “St Patricio”.

I guess it’s one of those albums where you find yourself poring over the sleevenotes to understand the whole story, but the package is a compelling one, and amidst all the Mexican artists lending a hand, there are a couple of handy reference points: a narrative from Liam Neeson on “March To Battle”; and an explicatory, lilting turn from Cooder himself on “The Sands Of Mexico”. Perhaps a few of you might be a bit alarmed that it all sounds like some dubious deal cooked up in Jools Holland’s green room but, honestly, it works (apart from one track fronted by Moya Brennan, “Lullaby For The Dead”, which lapses into MOR Irish etherealism, as you’d imagine).

The Carolina Chocolate Drops, meanwhile, are a trio of folk musicians from North Carolina who specialise in Southern – specifically Piedmont, apparently – string band music. It’s the sort of rustic, kinetic, banjo-driven music that can be found on those great box sets like “Goodbye Babylon”, but which sounds rather strange when recorded in modern hi-fidelity (the producer here is Joe Henry, actually).

There are a bunch of points to be made here regarding how the enjoyment of old folk recordings can sometimes be predicated on the fetishisation of surface noise; as if sonic signifiers of age somehow validate, or at least contribute to, the experience. But without getting too detracted by that sort of thing, “Genuine Negro Jig” is a pretty enjoyable (partial) exercise in historical reconstruction.

I say partial, because while the Carolina Chocolate Drops have a vigorous way with traditional material like “Snowden’s Jig” or “Cindy Gal”, a sort of studiously uncomplicated virtuosity to their playing, there’s also an interesting smattering of new material. Bandmember Justin Robinson provides an appealingly ghostly “Kissin’ And Cussin’”, while Tom Waits’ lovely “Trampled Rose” gets an effective, strolling makeover. Dangerously close to Hayseed Dixie-type bullshit, perhaps, but a take on Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style” is fun, too; maybe because the song has evidently been chosen because it suits the treatment, rather than being a schticky marriage.

Best of all, though, is Rhiannon Giddens’ very fine take on “Reynadine”, which eloquently reiterates one more time the blood ties between English and American folk music.


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