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Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi: They’re Calling Me Home review – big, beautiful laments

Jude Rogers
·2-min read

Rhiannon Giddens’ new album with Francesco Turrisi, her partner in life as well as music, explores two subjects that occupied them (and, frankly, the rest of us) over the last tumultuous year. One is often comforting: home. The other is usually the opposite: death. But for this American and Italian, locked-down in their adopted Ireland, they found that exploring these subjects through songs from the perspective of their respective upbringings was uplifting. “Every culture has these songs that are laments,” said Giddens. “Those feelings that you have … you experience them through the song and at the end, you’re a little bit lighter.”

This is a big, beautiful album, a showcase for direct, punchy emotions and Giddens’ vocal versatility. She trained as an opera singer and executes astonishing levels of beauty and control on Monteverdi’s Si Dolce è’l Tormento and When I Was in My Prime, a folk song previously covered by Pentangle and Nina Simone. Old-time staple Black As Crow is different and delicate, its banjo-plucked tenderness further softened by Emer Mayock’s Irish flute. Then O Death lands with a whack, as heavy, funky gospel blues: Turrisi does propulsive work on the frame drum. Giddens goes the full Merry Clayton.

There is mournfulness on a joint a cappella, Nenna Nenna, an Italian lullaby that Turrisi used to sing to his daughter, as the couple’s close harmonies twist and yearn with great feeling. But there’s also hope in Niwel Tsumbu’s beautiful nylon string guitar on Niwel Goes to Town, and even on the title track, by US bluegrass singer Alice Gerrard, about an old friend “on his dying bed” leaving songs behind him, his “sweet traces of gold”. This album is full of dazzling examples in this vein. They’ll live on.

Also out this week

Eli West’s Tapered Point of Stone (Tender & Mild) is the first solo set from the American roots guitarist and Bill Frisell collaborator. Exploring the joy of communal music-making after his father’s recent death, it’s rousing stuff, with mandolins, dobros and fiddles all tangling happily. Anna Tam’s Anchoress (Tam Records) is a ghostly set of British traditionals, spiked into moments of grandiosity by Tam’s showy soprano (she’s a former Mediaeval Baebe). Nyckelharpas and hurdy-gurdys give her endeavours a necessary heave of grit. Further out is Howie Lee’s Birdy Island (Mais Um), morphing Chinese traditional music with bass, Chicago footwork and AI-manipulated birdsong. It’s quite a feat to sound this ancient and futuristic simultaneously.