Credit: Rhiannon Giddens
by Josh Hurst Ledger Line Music

Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi | They’re Calling Me Home

May 17, 2021

Giddens and Turrisi’s latest collab is an intimate, interior record that beautifully blurs its sonic lines.

Rhiannon Giddens may not be the only musician who recorded an album during lockdown, but she may be one of the best-suited for such a project. For one thing, she spent quarantine with her partner, the jazz instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, with whom she previously collaborated on 2019’s there is no Other. United by a love of acoustic instruments and a passion for cross-pollinating global folk traditions, Giddens and Turrisi have a knack for duo recordings that sound at once intimate and robust; whatever austerity is implied by their stripped-down configuration, they conceive of their music almost orchestrally, resulting in a full, richly textured sound. The other thing that gives Giddens a leg up on Covid-era home recordings is her subject-matter expertise in folk music: She has a vast personal library of ancient wisdom at her command, including mossy old tunes that reckon with death, loneliness, and the notion of home — timely concerns, one and all. The resulting album, They’re Calling Me Home, plays very much like a matching bookend to the Joe Henry-produced there is no Other, to the point that, if you didn’t know better, you’d naturally assume they were recorded during the same sessions.

But if They’re Calling Me Home feels just as intimate and just as borderless, it’s notably more interior in its concerns: where the previous album rebuffed the Trump era’s socially-acceptable xenophobia by inviting us to consider our human connectedness, the new one casts its eye toward mortality, solitude, and homesickness. The centerpiece, a fierce update on the well-known “O Death,” sets Giddens’ pleas of lament against the rolling thunder of Turrisi’s percussion. There’s also “Waterbound,” an old fiddle tune about being physically unable to go home, featuring Giddens’ viola and a sparkling guitar cameo from Niwel Tsumbu. One of the underlying premises of these Giddens/Turrisi albums is to blur the lines between different folk traditions, hence the inclusion of an Italian opera piece (“Si Dolce è’l Tormento”) — a perfect showcase for Giddens’ clear, precise phrasing — alongside gospel and blues standards, globe-spanning instrumentals, and a Giddens original called “Avalon” that sounds like it could just as easily be an unearthed Irish ballad. Pentangle’s “When I Was in My Prime” unites the album’s metaphysical concerns while providing the best showcase for Giddens’ astonishing vocal crispness and control. The album ends with a willowing, benedictory version of “Amazing Grace,” at once instantly recognizable and radically transfigured — as if to remind us of the way in which songs, like prayers, can reflect their times even as they echo through the ages.

Published as part of Album Roundup — April 2021 | Part 2.