With old-school cover art on the outside and scattered homages to Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton and Cass Elliot on the inside, Rhiannon Giddens’ You’re the One is full of surprises.
Not least of which is that Giddens – despite her sonic game of hopscotch – has made an album that hangs together and stands alongside 2017’s Freedom Highway as a career highlight.
Here’s another: “Way Over Yonder,” a fiddle tune with handclaps and harmonies, ain’t no spiritual. Forsaking the hereafter for the here and now, Giddens instead sings about an illicit bar “where the women are nice and the men are pretty.”
You’re the One is the fifth album from the former Carolina Chocolate Drop; author; opera composer; MacArthur Genius; and – another surprise – her first of all-original material.
Giddens dumps her philandering man on the Franklinesque “Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad” and the Parton-tinged “If You Don’t Know How Sweet it Is.” She embraces (and does more to) her man on the playfully ribald “You Put the Sugar in My Bowl.” And she rejects men altogether on the grinding funk of “Hen in the Foxhouse.”
“I really don’t care how big it is as long as you keep it out of my way,” Giddens sings as strings and percussion accentuate the kiss-off of the century.
She sings about America’s promise with Jason Isbell on the rollicking celebration of good that is “Yet to Be” and fronts a jazz orchestra on the torchy ballad “Who are You Dreaming Of,” an obvious reply to Elliot’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
How You’re the One – which closes with the sub-one-minute, banjo instrumental “Ol’ Cider” – works as a whole is a glorious mystery. What is clear is that Giddens is the only one who could make it so.