's 2009 debut, Song Up In Her Head
, was a surprisingly mature and creative statement from an artist who was, at the time, barely at the end of her teen years. The disc's follow-up, Follow Me Down
, takes a more daring direction, veering from her traditional roots. But, the result is an imaginative collection of richly personal songs. It's also easily one of the year's finest Americana recordings.
Follow Her Down
Sarah Jarosz's sophomore album starts off with the line, "Follow me down, through the cotton fields," and, by the time she's finished that single line, you're ready to follow this record wherever it might take you. Where it goes is a meandering path past richly poetic, decidedly non-pop love songs ("My Muse" | purchase/download
), traditional-style folk songs ("Ring Them Bells" | purchase/download
), and music which at once defies genre and could also likely fit into any genre one might wish to ascribe to it.
Jarosz isn't the only roots-rooted artist of recent years to take those traditional influences and drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century. There's an element to Follow Me Down which is reminiscent of last year's Crooked Still release Some Strange Country or Punch Brothers' Antifogmatic. Which isn't to say Jarosz is biting the visionary stylistics of Aoife O'Donovan or Chris Thile (or their incredible, respective bands), but it does bear mentioning that she's clearly part of a movement which is helping to redefine what it means to be a contemporary folk artist.
"Contemporary Folk," Whatever That Is
Sarah Jarosz with Mumford & Sons© Erika Goldring
There was a time when "contemporary folk" referred mostly to singer-songwriters who wielded acoustic guitars, strummed chunky chords, and declared their emotions in poetic ways, carrying the torch lit first by Woody Guthrie and handed to Bob Dylan and beyond. The past couple of years, however, has seen a swath of very young artists who have grown up in the folk tradition, are remarkably astute at their instruments (they often play more than one), and feel inclined toward the songwriting of folks like Gillian Welch and Hazel Dickens. But, when they open their mouths to make music, something altogether different comes out.
Follow Me Down is part of that. The intricate, syncopated banjo picking in "Come Around" (purchase/download), for example, is part hillbilly folk and part something which could maybe be considered more along the lines of contemporary-classical. Jazz, maybe, even.
Indeed, like many of the artists on this same track with traditional music, Jarosz is a rather studied artist who has immersed herself in the study of all styles of music - specifically, at the New England Conservatory, where she is still a student. Her official bio indicates she intentionally pulled in some of the elements she's been exploring while in school, to experiment with how she can marry her new influences with those which have accompanied her throughout her life-long love affair with music.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Jerry Douglas is on this record. And Chris Thile, and Shawn Colvin, Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan, and about a dozen other of Nashville's best, most imaginative instrumentalists. You don't get the feeling, though, that Jarosz is using these folks to make her songs sound more outside-the-box than she could do on her own. She just happens to have some incredible connections. The songs themselves - in their essence - create the room for that kind of playing. That kind of songwriting is to Jarosz's credit. What geniuses like Fleck, Thile, and Douglas fill in, is just frosting on the cake.
Thile's presence is most richly felt on "The Tourist" (purchase/download) - a remarkable cover of the song by Radiohead - where his harmony trails dangerously close to Jarosz's strong melody. By the time the fiddle solo kicks in, it feels like those four strings and their bow exploded out of a box. The tension is incredible, making its release all the more wonderful.
In fact, it's this kind of balance between control and release which Jarosz seems to have nailed on this disc, making it hands-down one of the best folk/Americana releases of 2011.