Justin Robinson was a founding member of the rightfully acclaimed Carolina Chocolate Drops. An African-American string band, it turned largely forgotten American musical history into inspiring nightly celebrations, signed to a major label and—just before Robinson's exit—won a Grammy. But it wasn't altogether surprising when the Gastonia native opted out of the revivalist trio's meteoric rise. On a 2008 European tour with the Chocolate Drops, the restless Robinson began penning a batch of solo tunes that he recorded the following year under the name Birds or Monsters. As he told No Depression in an interview last month, he'd grown tired of full-time touring and wanted to take "a different direction musically," including the ability to compose more of his own songs rather than simply reinterpret traditional numbers.
Indeed, the songs as Birds or Monsters—and the similar material he's since written with his new band, the Mary Annettes—were largely unfit for the Drops' raw, folk-oriented approach. Adding an Outkast-style Southern rap flair to regal string orchestrations ready for a ballroom, Robinson manages a juxtaposition of styles that bridges spans of time and style more vast than those of the Drops. On Bones for Tinder, the first full-length from the four-piece The Mary Annettes following last year's EP Precious Blood, this gothic, chamber-hop formula works tremendously.
This is a different type of string band for Robinson. Rather than the Chocolate Drops' primitive jugs and bones, Josh Stohl employs acoustic and electric drums to lay down beefy beats as often as he uses a delicate, brushed touch. Kyra Moore and Sally Mullikin add a foundation of elegance with violin, viola and banjo (plus female harmonies to several songs), while Stohl occasionally adds harpsichord and marimba. The contributions of the three Mary Annettes on Bones for Tinder—cellist Elizabeth Marshall joined the group after the album was recorded—shouldn't be sold short, as they push Robinson's vision toward fulfillment.
Robinson's "Kissin' and Cussin'" was the sole original tune from the Chocolate Drops' Grammy-winning 2010 disc, Genuine Negro Jig. It makes for an easy comparison. Revisited here, the haunting murder ballad receives a similarly ominous treatment, though it's now fuller and arguably better. Guest Shirlette Ammons offers a rapped, rapt intro, while dramatic bowed bass stabs and the primal stomp of a drum-and-handclaps beat replace the atmospheric banjo and percussion of the Drops' spare take. "Bright Diamonds" is also indicative of Robinson and the Mary Annette's orchestral hip-hop approach. Quick slashes of violin, viola and autoharp gird a rapid-fire, three-part chorus and a pulsing, handclap-filled beat that's vaguely reminiscent of Andre 3000's mega-hit "Hey Ya!" The tune "Vultures" elicits a compulsory head nod, while "The Phil Spectors" seamlessly stitches neo-soul, classical, rock and electronic influences. On "Ships and Verses," Robinson even namechecks hits by Janet Jackson, Shakira, DJ Unk and Black Eyed Peas while mentioning traditional dances like the buck and wing and the minuet. It's a mission statement, uncoded and clear.
But there's more to Bones for Tinder than mash-ups of hip-hop and strings: Dark and moody, "Bonfire (Bones for Tinder)" is a richly textured modern folk song, its plucked viola's countermelody cutting against the strummed banjo riff. On closer "Gypsy Death and You," a cover of a cut from The Kills' 2003 debut, Robinson and Moore handle the gorgeous melody with a soft, melancholic duet and a delicate interplay of graceful strings. An ornate dance of viola and violin flits between autoharp strums on "Butcher Bird," a standout that reaches beyond the album's expected thrum. It's one of several songs here that keys on avian references. Robinson admits these nods were an unintentional byproduct of spending so much time in flight with the Drops while writing the record. It's appropriate, as Bones proves Robinson can move freely without his more famous band.