“Petticoats and crinolines and theremins and violins,
uh-huh, ” goes the chant in “Bright Diamonds,” as a deadpan observer itemizes the
tipsy, traditionally-instrumented, but anything but old-fashioned stew that
Justin Robinson has cooked up in his first post-Carolina Chocolate Drops
recording. “Bright Diamonds” builds tension out of old-time elements, a
percussive slash of violin, a shimmer of dulcimer, syncopated rhythms of foot
thumps and handclaps, and a criss-crossing nexus of spoken word parts that
sounds more like hip hop than mountain hop. Like many of the other songs in Bones for Tinder, it starts in folk, but
heads unexpectedly in other directions. “Ships and Verses,” turn hand-clapping
syncopation into a sepia-tinged beat-box, as Robinson raps about “rock[ing] it
like old-school Janet. ” Classic soul gets a nod, too, in “Vultures.” Here Robinson
threads a line from Marvin Gaye through eerie glimmers of dulcimer and billowy
ribbons of fiddle music, crooning “You’re all I need…to get by…oh-oh” in a
ghostly cabaret tenor. “Kissin’ and Cussin'” could be from Erykah Badu, except for the dulcimer, a slow-jammed, female-MC’d rap
running into Robinson’s cracked folk verse.
Justin Robinson was a founding member of the Carolina
Chocolate Drops, an outfit steeped in the traditions of Piedmont bluegrass,
though willing, on occasion, to interpret a contemporary tune in old-time style.
One of only two known contemporary
all-black string bands, Carolina Chocolate Drops paid tribute to a
once-vibrant, now nearly forgotten tradition of African-American strumming and
picking. The band won a Grammy in 2010 for Genuine
Negro Jig, an album that Blurt called “a rollicking polemic”. Robinson left
the Chocolate Drops in 2011, seeking, according to his website, to break out of
the traditional folk mold and explore other musical styles and genres.
I’d say. Bones for Tinder has its
share of folk-grounded entries, but none especially traditional, and all are
stretched and skewed fun-house style. Consider, for instance, the
stick-percussioned, mournful violin instrumental “Ill Lil’ Babies,” which, over
its one-minute duration, turns a Celtic reel into something disquieting and
unreal. Or take the relatively conventional “Devil’s Teeth,” with its hill
hollow yelp, its rich reverberation of fiddle, its steady, floor-pounding thump.
There’s a wildness embedded in rhythms that ought, by rights, to be
straight-laced, a reeling abandon that takes authenticity and turns it to
eleven. Robinson reminds me of Rasputina in the way he elicits ferocity out of
instruments – violins, cellos, dulcimer – that are normally simply pretty. Folk
music, even loosely defined, is rarely this rivetingly unpredictable.
Diamonds,” “Vultures” JENNIFER