on June 26, 2009
I found out about this album by being on the Sugar Hill Records mailing list and bought it three days ago. The songs have been "up in my head" ever since. This is a post-newgrass album, with acoustic instruments paying tribute to but never being constrained by bluegrass and folk/roots tradition. The album is as musically complex and precise as Nickel Creek was, which makes it a really smart record to listen to and stands in tribute to Jarosz' skills as a songwriter.
But what has the album stuck in my head and on repeat on my mp3 player is her beautiful singing voice. Such amazing control of her pitch, with almost no trace of vibrato, and somehow she makes it seem effortless. It's a deep, rich alto that reminds me at various moments of Fiona Apple, Melissa Swingle (Trailer Bride, The Moaners) and Karen Peris (Innocence Mission).
Her personal backstory -- being barely out of high school -- is fun and inspiring, but if someone played this album for you without telling you, you'd never know. Though her lyrics have the optimism and centeredness of youth, her voice sounds layered with 10 years of adulthood.
Come to Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, Ms. Jarosz, and I'll be in the front row. This is great work, and I look forward to your next albums.
Sarah Jarosz is not what you might expect. She is a prodigy in a genre that appeals to child prodigies. A child prodigy's first bluegrass album tends to be a flashy demonstration of instrumental skill with relatively ordinary compositions and arrangements. Jarosz is as un-flashy a player as you are likely to hear. She rarely cuts loose with a jaw-dropping display of instrumental skill, preferring a minimalist approach. The arrangements, too, are stripped-down, allowing the listener to appreciate the subtle interplay between just a few sympathetic musicians. The compositions themselves are far more advanced than what most musicians several times Jarosz's age can write, combining old-time, Celtic and blues with distinctly modern rhythms. Most surprising, though, is Jarosz's voice. Most kids show their age when they sing. Personally, I am not a fan of overly-clean singing voices, particularly in bluegrass, and most young women Jarosz's age who sing have saccharine voices. I will use an "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" comparison because I expect that most readers will get the reference: Jarosz is far closer to Gillian Welch (one of my favorite musicians of all time) than to Alison Krauss (another former child prodigy). Her voice is a bit lower than most female singers (particularly her age), and has just the right amount of weather-beaten quality that a bluegrass singer needs. She also eschews the excessive vibrato that some young and gifted singers fall into the pit of using. In short, Jarosz is the most promising young bluegrass musician to arrive on the scene in years.
There is an obvious temptation to compare Jarosz to Nickel Creek, a group of child prodigies with progressive bluegrass sensibilities. However, I strongly prefer Jarosz's darker voice to that of Sara Watkins, and Jarosz relies more on roots styles than modern indie rock, as Nickel Creek did on their second two albums. The other obvious point of comparison would be Alison Krauss, who showed up on the bluegrass scene to similar acclaim many years ago as a child prodigy with strong instrumental skills and an appealing voice. Again, though, the soulful darkness in Jarosz's voice, which permeates her compositions as well, sets her apart. For me, the only real comparison is Tim O'Brien. O'Brien is probably my favorite bluegrass singer. His raspy but perfectly-controlled voice is ideal for the genre, and he is a versatile, expressive multi-instrumentalist who never over-plays. Jarosz is well-positioned to become the Tim O'Brien of her generation, with a perfectly-imperfect voice, multi-instrumental skills, compositional maturity, and genre-crossing sensibilities.
Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, Real Time. This album is the perfect, stripped-down bluegrass album with great singing, and subtle, un-flashy instrumental work.
Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings. All of Welch's albums are outstanding, but I am particularly fond of Hell Among the Yearlings these days. Welch is closer to old-time country than bluegrass, but Jarosz is barely bluegrass anyway.
Dave Rawlings Machine, A Friend of a Friend. Welch's guitarist just put out an outstanding album. His voice isn't nearly as impressive as Jarosz's or Welch's, but the music is wonderful.
on July 7, 2009
I'm at a slight loss for words in trying to describe the rather alluring music on this album; to my ears, it has quite an unusual sound - but I'm not sure whether this is because it IS unusual, or simply because I don't listen to this type of music very frequently. The music is a refreshing mix of contemporary folk, 'newgrass', blues and pop.
I'd describe SJ's voice as a 'bluesy-folksy' alto, and she employs a mature phrasing and delivery which belies her tender age (it's difficult to believe that she was only 17 when the album was recorded). She is not an especially powerful singer, and there are some odd occasions when her vocals tend to blur into the instrumental accompaniment. The playing, including that of SJ herself, is mighty impressive - fluent, vibrant, delicate and sometimes intricate, both as solo and as ensemble playing. Instruments featured most prominently are banjo, fiddle, and mandolin; other instruments played include cello, guitars (acoustic, Weissenborn slide, National resonator, dobro and pedal steel) and keyboards (piano and synths); bass is acoustic, and percussion is played on 3 tracks only. The album is 'semi-instrumental' - i.e. vocals and instrumentals are shared about 50/50 on many songs, and there are 2 all instrumental tracks.
There are 11 songs written by SJ plus 2 covers. Her own songs tend not to conform to the more usual verse/chorus/bridge patterns; instead, it strikes me that she writes from the perspective of a musician/song-arranger - at least, more so than that of a 'conventional' singer-songwriter. In common with most albums that I buy, there are 2 or 3 songs which don't do much for me - but a few comments about my favourites :
EDGE OF A DREAM - a haunting and atmospheric (the echo is a bit over-done) slow tempo song with lyrics which convey some of her own doubts and hopes about the future; SG accompanies herself on fretless banjo; MANSINNEEDOF - a fairly short 'bright and breezy' instrumental featuring the interplay of 2 mandolins and fiddle, all underscored by a warm acoustic bass; BROUSSARD'S LAMENT - perhaps the one song, with it's more emphatic percussion that, in parts, comes closest to rocking; edgy lyrics which (I assume) are about the mismanagement of rescue efforts following the Katrina disaster; fine fiddle solo from Stuart Duncan; LEFT HOME - a song with a strong pop feel; terrific short solos on dobro (Jerry Douglas) and fiddle (Stuart Duncan), plus great harmonies; SHANKHILL BUTCHERS (Colin Meloy) - splendid cover of the Decemberists' menacing and creepy murder ballad, strong vocals from SG delivered with a hint of sardonicism; COME ON UP TO THE HOUSE (Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan) - a swinging blues/gospel flavoured rendition of this song.
'Song Up In Her Head' will not appeal to everyone, but if you like the music of Nickel Creek, Crooked Still or The Wailin' Jennys, then you might want to give it a try. It's a remarkable debut album from a talented young artist and some highly accomplished musicians.
on June 16, 2009
I heard Sarah Jarosz interviewed in NPR and couldn't wait until I could download her album today. Somewhere I heard her referred to as a "wunderkind" -- and I hope and believe she achieve great commercial success with her albums. I think her talent and ambition reflects a huge success already achieved.
Her mastery of musical instruments is amazing -- I can't wait to see how she grows as her skills evolve. But then her voice! It's kind of understated, mature yet not overly sophisticated, so it complements and is complemented by the mandolin/banjo/guitar. Her voice also surprises. You will just have to listen to see what I mean.
I haven't been this excited about an artist in a long time! Sarah is someone very special.
Wow! Once you listen to Sarah Jarosz you won't forget her, I guarantee that. Her voice is hauntingly beautiful - just as her music. "Edge of a Dream" for example. I stumbled onto this CD here on Amazon, liked the samples and took a chance. Glad I did. Superb songs and a very distinctive sound. I had a whole bunch of CD's I've been playing and this is one I keep coming back to. It does get up in your head. "Come On Up To The House" is one that you will find going through your head days afterwards. It reminds me very much of my Daddy and his family as they said this all the time. But there is a lot more depth in some of the other songs on this CD and they will slowly reveal themselves to you as you listen again and again to this wonderful CD. "Left Home" is another one that will hang with you. "Shankill Butchers" is a wickedly humorous, yet lovely song as well.
What a voice. She has a unique sound that is very appealing. And for such a young singer, she has a lot of emotional depth to her phrasing and accents. It's truly a joy to listen to this CD and savor the simply complex sounds.
This CD did not grab me at first, but the tunes did stick with me and drew me back, and as I listened a bit more it really pulled me in. One of the few I play over again right after listening to it.
An incredible accomplishment and a joy to experience.
on June 16, 2009
I purchased this album on the strength of Sarah's interview on NPR, charmed by comments about juggling music and calculus (she just graduated from high school). From that feature, I expected a refreshing listen with some good banjo and mandolin picking. And I got what I expected. Then I came to Shankill Butchers, a macabre, Andrew Bird-esque ditty. Now I'm hooked. This album is sometimes fun, sometimes sweet or melancholy, always superbly performed.
on July 13, 2013
Both of Sarah's albums are totally enjoyable. Her songs are very accessible with sound lyrics and catchy "mature" songs. Sarah's voice is always on the note with a freshness that has me coming back to her music often. In typical Sugar Hill fashion, the sound quality is super. The album has a very personal quality due to quality songwriting, singing and sound. Best bet...buy Song Up in Her Head and Follow Me Down and enjoy both excellent albums.
PS While you are at it... order Sierra Hull and you can have a marathon of awesome female-led bluegrass.
on June 18, 2009
Having traversed bluegrass circles for five years, this seventeen-year-old singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is ready to transcend the "prodigy" label. Yet the fluidity of her singing, the depth of her songwriting and the confidence in her picking are still preternaturally poised for a high school senior. Her debut features eleven solo compositions played with a band that features legends of the acoustic string scene such as Jerry Douglas and Darrell Scott, and up-and-coming peers Samson Grisman and Alex Hargreaves. Jarosz doesn't trade on her youth, singing in a voice richer than a teenager's and writing lyrics whose poetry is that of a songwriter, rather than a high school class. The unbridled yearning in her songs is the only real mark of her age, as she dreams of finding love and aches with the opportunities she encounters. She turns into a jazz chanteuse for covers of the Decemberists' bloody "Shankill Butchers" and Tom Waits' "Come on Up to the House," and picks mandolin and clawhammer banjo on a pair of original instrumentals. Jarosz avoids the precociousness of youthful talent by guiding listeners to focus on her talent, rather than her youth. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]
on July 11, 2009
Sarah is someone I've been "hearing about" for a long time and after seeing her play and sing on a local am news show, I couldn't wait for this to cd to come out. Her command of her instruments is amazing for someone so young but the thing that most impressed me is her talent at song writing and her vocal maturity. Can't wait to see what musical roads this young lady will follow but I am along for the ride. If you are a fan of Alison Krauss or Nickelcreek you will most likely enjoy this. Sarah Jarosz is definitely one to watch
on May 23, 2015
My favorite Sarah Jarosz disc. She's still young and a terrific talent and I expect she'll continue to grow as an artist. Ironically, I've found her subsequent recordings increasingly pop-infused and inconsistent. To me, this retains a freshness and vitality that I simply don't perceive in her later recordings.