So much for that “difficult second album” challenge. If the roots singer/banjo player’s 2015 solo debut was a breathtaking showcase for her ability to channel one strain of Americana after another, from Nina Simone to Patsy Cline, then Freedom Highway finds her writing and singing more in her own voice. Recorded in back-to-basics style in Louisiana, the result is a collection that honours the past — Julie is one of the songs to draw on a slave narrative — without becoming an exquisite exercise in nostalgia. Giddens’s unusually disciplined vocals strip the lyrics of all artifice. There may be a hint of sloganeering on, say, Better Get It Right the First Time, yet this is on the whole a timely, politically charged album that avoids easy point-scoring. Giddens has unabashed fun, too: Hey Bebe trips along on a jaunty street-parade beat, embellished with insouciant trumpet.
And here’s the title track, an exhilarating Staples Singers cover, recorded with a little help from that thoughtful indie-rocker Bhi Bhiman.