Sarah Jarosz: Follow Me Down

Sophomore outing confidently meshes string band, bluegrass and modern sounds

Though only 19 when she wrote and recorded this set, Sarah Jarosz has pushed well beyond the “prodigy” title of her early years on the bluegrass circuit. Even her 2009 debut, Song Up in Her Head, showed her to be a lot deeper than a musical wunderkind. Her string-band background is still evident on this sophomore outing, but as on the earlier single, The New 45, she also reaches to progressive folk and indie-rock.  The album menu remains the same as the debut: a wealth of original material and an ingeniously selected pair of covers (Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” and Radiohead’s “The Tourist”), played by a mix of her regular musical compatriots (Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan), young bucks (Alex Hargreaves, Nathaniel Smith), guests (Shawn Colvin, Darrell Scott, Dan Tyminski, Bela Fleck), and a dozen more interesting players.

Jarosz stamps all eleven tracks with her musical vision. The haunting tone of her voice, the assuredness with which she weaves through the melodies, and the thoughtfulness of her delivery are all impressive. She isn’t polished from twenty years of roadwork, but instead seems to have been fully delivered as an artist from birth. Even more incredible is how her sure-footedness invites response from the assembled players. Young and old alike respond with terrific ideas, including Bela Fleck’s vamping and banjo solo on “Come Around,” Stuart Duncan’s duet, counterpoint and violin leads on “Floating in the Balance,” and the progressive instrumental jam “Old Smitty.” Her trio singing with the Punch Brothers (and Gabe Witcher’s superb violin) both breaks down and intesifies the mood of Radiohead’s “The Tourist.”

The emotional quality of Jarosz’s singing magnifies the open-ended meaning of her lyrics. The opening “Run Away” extends an invitation that may be one of innocence or sexuality, and the following “Come Around” strains to maintain faith in someone who may be either mortal or godly. Jarosz seeks connection in “Here nor There,” but it’s not clear whether the kinship is with another person or with her musical gift; the latter is explicitly serenaded in “My Muse,” and her adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabell Lee” provides a lyrical story of unconsummated love. It’s often said that you have eighteen or twenty years to write your first album, and only one year to write the follow-up, but with this sophomore outing, Jarosz shows she has both gas in the tank and a long road ahead. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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