Qobuz new release review (April 2023)
It’s a bit of a bold move to suggest that the breadth, depth, and length of “Black roots music” could be captured in the running time of two discs, but Birthright makes a valiant effort that is as focused on listenability as it is on historical accuracy and cultural representation. In the age of mutable playlists, the fixed sequence of a compilation album means that its true success is keeping listeners engaged in the act of drawing sonic and contextual connections that are as enjoyable as they are surprising. Thus, Birthright benefits from the convergent expertise of its compilers — noted music historian Dr. Ted Olson (Professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee University) and multiple Grammy-winning producer Scott Billington — and is both as erudite as it is enjoyable. Eschewing a chronological sequence as well as any sort of roll-call genre representation, Birthright opts for more organic interconnectedness, blasting out of the gate with a banger: “Bourbon Street Parade” by Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Of course New Orleans isn’t the nucleus for Black roots music in America (there are many nuclei, which is kind of the point of this compilation), but if you were asked for a thesis statement on the idea, you could do a lot worse, given the range of traditions that flow through — and out of — New Orleans’ musical heritage. Many of those traditions (and many more) are waypoints on this 40-track journey, with strong and surprising selections from artists both legendary and lesser-known. To their credit, the compilers have largely avoided the overplayed and obvious; The Staples Singers singing “Motherless Children” is far more impactful than yet another appearance for “Respect Yourself,” and choosing “When I Lay My Burden Down” to represent John Lee Hooker is absolutely genius. Meanwhile, the set provides plenty of representation from historical artists like the Martin, Bogan, and The Armstrongs and Joseph Spence as well as newer acts like Ranky Tanky, in addition to icons like Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Clifton Chenier, Skip James and others. Such choices not only help make this an exceptionally listenable compilation, but they also reinforce the overarching theme of the set, which effectively argues that the Black musical traditions that have had a distinct and profound effect on American musical culture are not static, historical signposts, but instead are richly complex, intricately interconnected, and still incredibly vibrant and forward-moving.