Justin Robinson, Gastonia-native and co-founder of Carolina Chocolate Drops, celebrates the release of his upcoming album with his new band the Mary Annettes Friday, January 6, at Evening Muse (3227 N. Davidson St.). Robinson (center), who now lives in Durham, left his former band after five years with the Grammy winning African-American string band. Since then he’s studied forestry, launched Pearl Gray’s Frozen Custard, worked in embroidery (he did the cover art for the Mary Annette’s “Precious Blood EP”), and created this new band.
The new album, “Bones for Tinder,” doesn’t leave his old time string band roots behind. Instead he builds on that acoustic folk-base with all sorts of stylistic diversions. The idea of combining hip-hop beats, fiddles, banjo, and autoharp (an underused gem of an instrument) may seem like it would be forced, but Robinson makes the marriage sound completely natural. I think that’s due to the level of subtlety in which he combines elements of disparate genres within such a cohesive album.
Much of “Bones for Tinder” is bound by tradition. “Neptune,” which opens the record, “Devil’s Teeth,” and the title track are firmly anchored in traditional roots music for instance. Others easily fall under the chamber folk umbrella thanks to the orchestral feel provided by cello and violin. The songs I consider the weirder ones remind me of cello-rock outfit Rasputina, which combine vintage lyrical ideas, a kind of antique image (evident in its name and the delightfully campy band photo above), and classical influences with more of a pop-rock song format. This is especially true of “Bright Diamonds” in which Robinson and the female musicians in the band sing/speak clipped lines like “petticoats and crinolines, theremins and violins, uh-huh” over bowed strings, handclaps, and a quiet, sort of rubbed beat.
The female harmonies add to the overall feel of the record and help, along with the intricately layered instrumentation, take the songs to another level. The way he sings the simple “Thank You Mr. Wright” is another example of this inventive approach. The near monotone-delivery gives it a ghostly feel. Elsewhere Robinson is downright soulful, but it’s usually done with that same sort of haunted feel. This is particularly true of the moving closer “Gypsy, Death and You.”
Combined with the fresh arrangements and direction, that soulfulness is more akin to someone like Prince than typical over-the-top soul singers. The Prince comparison may stem from Robinson’s range and the occasional jazzy catch in his voice, but it’s also related to the funky adventurousness and fully realized, polished quality of the Mary Annettes' full-length debut.
While the decision to leave a rising, Grammy winning band may seem like a head scratcher, Robinson is doing really fine work here. “Bones for Tinder” makes that decision a little less confounding.
The group plays Evening Muse at 8 p.m. tonight Tickets are $10-$12. 704-376-3737; www.eveningmuse.com.
In other Chocolate Drop-related news, Robinson’s former band (which now includes multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins), will release the Buddy Miller-produced follow-up to its Grammy winning “Genuine Negro Jig” on February 28. Flemons also has another new release, “Buffalo Junction,” with Piedmont blues guitarist Boo Hanks.