Despite having a long musical history as a part of a number of different groups, Freedom Highway is only Rhiannon Giddens’ second solo release under her own name. For her second solo effort, she’s changed things up a little bit; rather than collecting reinterpretations and covers, as she did on her debut Tomorrow Is My Turn, only three of the songs are covers, with the rest being original material. It’s an infinitely more personal, and overall much more powerful record, and even though it has its slow moments that lack the emphasis of their partners, there’s a lot of power to be found in each track.
With the help of multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, Giddens has created an album that mixes a historic message of racial equality with an essence that frames it in a more modern way that affects both her and many of her listeners. The choice of cover tracks pinpoints this message, with the title track—a cover of the civil rights era song Freedom Highway by Staples Singers—being the major moment, reimagining the events of the era of its conception and highlighting their effects on the modern world as well. It’s also the most upbeat song on show here, with a simple percussive beat backing the track but giving the focal point—the horns—full reign to let loose and frame the track, though it remains coherent with the rest of the album regardless of its tempo.
Many of the song’s recordings are rather minimal in nature, ranging from folksy vibes in the fiddle accompaniment and sparse accompaniment of Julie to the banjo and constant horns of Hey Bebe, and verging into gospel territory on the album’s second civil rights era cover, Birmingham Sunday, with the simple percussion, piano and organ arrangement offering a classic, faithful style that works well in the context of the album. The only truly outlandish moment comes from Better Get It Right the First Time, which retains similar instrumentation but features a more modern R&B sound, even going so far as to feature a rap near its end. It’s a strange moment, and one that counteracts the mood of the album entirely despite some thematically fitting lyrics, but it’s the album’s one major fault.
Largely, Freedom Highway is a powerful album with a clear message that resonates throughout its tracklist. Even better is that it was executed to such a strong degree, offering a more personal collection from Rhiannon Giddens while also retaining the spirit of the message she wished to portray to the listener. It’s a strong sophomore effort, and a great listen almost entirely from start to finish.