I woke up today feeling a bit out of sorts but I then spent a lovely afternoon visiting with friends, and wandering around town. Along the way I picked up some music (the new album from the Wooden Sky). Now my mood has wholly shifted and the world seems full of fresh promise and hope. Good friends and good music have that effect on me.
Disc 996 is…Follow Me Down
Artist: Sarah Jarosz
Year of Release: 2011
What’s up with the Cover? Someone has taken a perfectly good Giant Head cover and wrecked it. Somehow Jarosz still comes off looking beautiful, despite the unfortunate face-schism.
How I Came To Know It: I fell down a Youtube well. I was investigating another bluegrass singer named Aoife O’Donovan. Aoife O’Donovan didn’t quite grab me enough to delve into her collection, but “Oh Mama” is one hell of a beautiful song nonetheless. While checking out that song and a few others, I found a duet of O’Donovan and Jarosz singing “Some Tyrant” – which is also great.
This led me to a trio of women (Jarosz, O’Donovan and Sara Watkins) collectively known as “I’m With Her” where I was once again struck by Jarosz’ talent. When I heard her sing Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” I knew I had to learn more about her, eventually leading me to “Follow Me Down” and her whole discography besides.
How It Stacks Up: I have three of Jarosz’ four solo albums. I’m only missing 2009’s “Song Up In Her Head” which I don’t really want. Of the three I have this is the first one I feel I have fully grokked, but from what I know of the other two they are slightly better, so I must reluctantly put “Follow Me Down” in third place.
Ratings: 3 stars
Some artists just ooze with talent, and Sarah Jarosz is one of those people. While “Follow Me Down” feels in places like she is still finding her voice as a songwriter, the vocals and exceptional musicianship she brings to the table are impossible to ignore.
Jarosz plays mandolin, octave mandolin (a bigger mandolin that is an octave deeper than a regular mandolin), clawhammer banjo and guitar with equal talent. She’s just one of those people guitar hacks like me want to hate, because in her hands any instrument is a natural extension of her soul, given voice. Vocally, she ranges from breathy and mysterious to rich and full depending on what best serves in the moment.
This is what drew me to her initially, and hearing her play Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” on the octave mandolin was a revelation. Not only is the mandolin on this track breathtaking, but the vocals that Jarosz delivers on this exceptional and inspirational track are so full and rich that I think my heart is going to burst. Whenever this song comes on my face twists into some painful rapture, and my head sways involuntarily with the rhythm. I’m surprised no one called an ambulance thinking I was having a stroke.
I would have bought “Follow Me Down” just for “Ring Them Bells” and been happy, but the rest of the album is also solid. Jarosz brings together a talented group of bluegrass musicians to play alongside her, and understands that this style of music works best when everyone gets a chance to shine. The first instrumental “Old Smitty” follows the traditional ‘take turns playing a solo’ approach and the second instrumental “Peace” has Jarosz play lead on mandolin throughout, with flourishes of violin and flute helping punctuate the emotional high points. Both songs work equally well. Jarosz wrote both of these pieces and they sound both timeless and unique, just like a good folk song should.
There are also smooth pseudo-jazz and pop elements married into the more traditional bluegrass sound, with generally good results. “Come Around” has a restless energy and some brave melodic choices that pay off, with Jarosz singing in an almost lounge style over top of some first rate mandolin riffs.
“The Tourist” tries a similar tack, with a slower tempo which for me lost the energy it needed to marry the two sounds as successfully. “My Muse” does a better job of keeping it slow and meaningful but even here the lack of a hook beyond the refrain at the end of each section, the song takes a bit of active listening to unlock its secrets. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean you need to be in the right frame of mind.
Another bright spot is Jarosz’ reinterpretation of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “Annabelle Lee.” Jarosz rearranges and rewrites the tale of love and borderline necrophilia to serve the restless energy of the clawhammer banjo, without losing any of the creepiness necessary for the story to work. The ominous violin and cello in the mix helps the whole thing feel suitably ghostly.
This record is subtle in revealing itself to you, and gets better with repeat listens. Put on in the background (as I first heard it) and it is a little too subtle for its own good. These are not hook-laden pop songs, and you need to commit yourself to an active listen for best results. On my first round, on a bus with my head full of work, I found myself coming in and out of it, but last night walking home from town with a couple of pints in my system the subtle emotion hit me a lot harder.
One thing is certain: getting to know “Follow Me Down” makes me excited to do the same deep delving with the other two Sarah Jarosz albums I have.
Best tracks: Come Around, Annabelle Lee, Ring Them Bells, My Muse