ALBUMS: Dom Flemons Is The American Songster
On this excellent expanded edition of 2014’s Prospect Hill, the solo sounds of this onetime Carolina Chocolate Drop is taken to New Heights
Artist: Dom Flemons
Album: Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus
Label: Omnivore Recordings
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Dom Flemons has always shown his ability to place one foot in the past and the other pointing the way towards the future.
As a prime mover in the highly revered Carolina Chocolate Drops — the same group that fostered Rhiannon Giddens early on — he’s always maintained an archival perspective, one that’s rooted in historical precedence. That perspective came to its ultimate fruition with his third solo effort, Prospect Hill, an album that surveyed the music of the early 20th century, much of which sprung from rural environs.
Of course, any effort that draws its inspiration from historical origins is as much about education as it is about entertainment. Which of course means that there will be some who shun it out of the belief it will prove too academic and less of a diversion. After all, while the Smithsonian offers ample opportunity for would-be scholars to pursue their archival interests, it’s hardly what would consider a bastion of mainstream appeal.
Happily then, Flemons has proved to be a master of connecting past with present, as the expanded rerelease of Prospect Hill makes quite clear. There’s an amiable attitude running through both the original material and the bonus add-on material — a selection of songs that includes all the original recordings, a 2015 nine song Record Store Day release titled What Got Over consisting of alternate versions and other songs with a similar sensibility (the version of the well-trod standard “Keep on Truckin” is a special treat) and 12 previously unreleased instrumentals. Further enhanced by extensive liner notes from Flemons and his wife Vania Kinard, as well as a collection of tastefully curated photographs, the newly constituted album should provide a source of fascination for both casual observers and serious students of arcane Americana alike.
That said, the music retains its purity and purpose. Augmented for the most part by Flemons’ vocals and solo banjo accompaniment, it’s a giddy celebration of a time and place that was judged to be far more innocent by most standards, but still an integral and essential era in the development of blues, minstrel music and the popular sounds that brought African American roots music into the mainstream. Most is relatively simple and unassuming — the chant and pipe accompaniment of “Grotto Beat,” the easy, unassuming primal blues of “I Can’t Do It Anymore” and “San Francisco Baby,” the jaunty pluck and strum rhythm of “Sonoran Church Two-Step” and the playful “Hot Chicken,” a song that could have been similarly surveyed by Taj Mahal early on — providing the prime examples.
Not surprisingly then, the original album provides the bulk of the interest both then and now. The add-ons enhance the authenticity and embellish it to a modest degree, but will likely be of most interest to those who fancied the album initially. It’s further evidence that this Carolina Chocolate Drop still oozes both taste and tenacity.
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