Two years ago their Grammy-nominated album There Is No Other laid the ground for an intensely productive partnership. Now, Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi have released an album that somehow manages to distil the essence of what many are experiencing in this pandemic: a longing for home and a grappling with death on a scale and in ways living generations hadn't imagined before 2020.
The American-Italian duo, both long resident in Ireland, give voice to their longing for home, drawing from the American bluegrass and folk canon, Italian opera and folk traditions, English folk and a sheaf of original songs and tunes. Few artists have processed the challenges of pandemic living with such pin-prick precision and raw emotion. This is an album that interrogates our notions of home in this particular time – its emotional lure, its geographical inaccessibility and, unsurprisingly, its ultimate meaning: death.
Giddens and Turrisi don't shirk the discomfort and disquiet of these times. This remarkably cohesive album of 12 wildly disparate tracks cuts to the heart of what isolation and distance might mean. They draw on the bluegrass tradition for their opening title song, written by Alice Gerrard, and end the collection with a powerfully wordless reading of Amazing Grace, Turrisi's frame drum and Giddens's lilting, nay, crying of the melody more lonesome than any lyric. In between the pair draw on the spare contributions of Niwel Tsumbu on guitar and Emer Mayock on pipes and flute, to exquisite effect. Mayock's pipes on Amazing Grace are lonesomeness personified.
Their cover of Pentangle’s When I Was in My Prime strikes a beautifully spare pose, baroque in tone. Giddens’s pacing is deliciously slower than that of Jacqui McShee’s, anchored by Turrisi on cello banjo and Giddens’s own viola. Monteverdi’s Si Dolci è’l Tormento makes a perfect companion piece, this 17th century slice of melodrama telling a tale of heartbreak that needs no translation, other than Giddens’s emotionally complex soprano and the well-deep resonances of the cello banjo.The traditional Waterbound, with its roots in North Carolina, echoes Giddens’s longing for a return to her own home place, while her own composition, Avalon, circles around the promise of the elusive journey home, to mesmerising effect.
Giddens’s minstrel banjo and Turrisi’s frame drum and accordion, so central to their previous collaboration, are augmented by the deep tones of a viola and cello banjo on this stunning collection, recorded in Hellfire studios in Dublin. A perfection companion for these strangest of times.