It's hard to put a finger on what exactly makes Carolina Chocolate Drops' fourth album so uninteresting—the specific missing ingredient that makes their earnest take on bluegrass sound unremittingly insipid. It might be that very earnestness, which gives the music a sunny disposition, but also makes it come off as cheerfully schlocky. It might be the circumspect dabbling in genres beyond bluegrass, consistently conducted with wariness. Either way, despite its insistent liveliness and broad stylistic palette, Leaving Eden never goes beyond anodyne imitation.
The group's approach positions it at one side of the revisionist spectrum, as purveyors of oppressive authenticity, polar opposites of groups who bathe their pastiche in insincere irony. It's the kind of ethos that assures that a song with a title like "Kerr's Negro Jig" wouldn't be offensive even if its members weren't black: It's so sweetly enthralled with a bygone approach that any hint of nastiness is precluded.
But the music here also sounds dry and incomplete, with less focus on crafting interesting songs than slavishly calling up the ghost of some bygone, mythical southland, a banjoist strumming barefoot in the grass. For Carolina Chocolate Drops, the touchstone is a classic Piedmont brand of bluegrass, with a few splashes of modern color (a vocal trill here, a turntable scratch there) thrown in for context. The result is often fun, as on vigorous tracks like "Riro's House," but it invariably feels like a diminished, theatrical version of the music it's trying to reproduce.
Such an indictment makes it seem like the entirety of Leaving Eden is atrophied and artificial. It's not. There's real heart and love in most of these songs, and some quality elements: Rhiannon Gidden's voice is husky and warm, the banjo is expertly handled, and the percussion kicks up a pleasing clatter beneath the faster songs. There's also an interesting element in the fusion of soul vocalization, a foray into standards territory on "No Man's Mamma," and a less interesting one in the few nods toward hip-hop. But the group doesn't do enough to define their style as anything exceptional. The result is an album full of gateway music, lovingly made knockoffs that point to the purer and smarter bluegrass it's imitating.