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Sarah Jarosz – Follow Me Down

Travelling through the past’s future: Sarah Jarosz cuts a timeless album of particular appeal.

Singer-songwriter acoustic music is the bane of my existence. Plucked chords and soaring female vocals that slip octaves remind me of high school girls with billowing dresses who date drug dealers. They would defend these scraggly bearded types, whose anti-establishment ethics justified sticking it to the man for pocket money bags, because he was ‘complicated’ with pressures that ‘you just don’t understand’. Years later, these romantic martyrs can be found strumming away at open mic nights, saturated with emotion. Each lyric veiling their experiences in songs about origami cranes, dried flowers, or gloamings, occasionally with defiant choruses that gloat about something’s demise, strength within or innocence (lost). 

Do I stifle my laughter with a pint? Often. Titter at the metaphors? You bet. When asked, have I ever cynically emoted; ‘I feel your pain’? On more than one occasion. However, by far the worst scenario is when there is no levity to be had at all. In those situations the singer beams out with the sort of smooth sailing, talented, bright eyed, emotional depth of a stray blonde lock that feels like you’re being choked by a Carebear’s cake. Grim stuff.   

Singer-songwriter acoustic music is the bane of my existence. Plucked chords and soaring female vocals that slip octaves remind me of high school girls with billowing dresses who date drug dealers.

With that in mind it’s hard for me to say outright that Follow Me Down is any good, worth a listen, or even a recommended purchase. But taking a hesitant step outside of my own prejudices for a reflexive second it is actually all these things. However, before we jump into the shallow waters of musical praise let’s first dive deeper into context and talk about things that could have been a bit more bitter.

Follow Me Down is a technically adept album that showcases a number of session players at their imaginative best, Sarah Jarosz will turn 20 with the release of this album and already she can be counted amongst their number. Moreover, she’s pushing herself to go further by taking up a scholarship to the Boston conservatory. However, a professional recording of this calibre usually has a major drawback, emotional remoteness. This is the second album by Jarosz and she is overtly attempting to move beyond ‘my, how she’s young but gosh she can really play’ into ‘here is a serious artiste’. The problem is that artistry resides where risks meet mistakes and I don’t get the feeling that Jarosz does either.  Am I faulting something that gives the appearance of faultlessness? Yes.

However, a professional recording of this calibre usually has a major drawback, emotional remoteness.

Within the oeuvre of ‘acoustic’ music, the most easily intimate of all music genres, artists push to make each recording more compelling than the last (See; John Martyn, Tom Waits, Iron and Wine, Benoit Pioulard, Fleet Foxes etc). The problem with Follow Me Down is that it is too ‘easy listening’ to allow many listeners to be taken somewhere visceral emotionally. We are all imperfect beings and great music transmutes this humanity into a crucible of elevation. Listening to the Sarah Jarosz’s contemplative music I don’t feel enlightened, lifted or engaged… but then these are concerns of the heart, intellectually Follow Me Down is mesmerising.

There is a palpable sense of joy to these recordings that makes it recommended listening even for people unfamiliar with musical history and theory.

The breadth of influences and styles resplendent here are executed with breathtaking talent. From raging barnstormers to jazz to indie acoustic, Sarah Jarosz, a master of these existing forms pushes each genre with interesting twists and phrases as she guides her black-belt session players to their fullest. There is a palpable sense of joy to these recordings that makes it recommended listening even for people unfamiliar with musical history and theory. And for those well versed, within Jarosz’s traditional sounding music there are contemporary surprises and original interpretations aplenty.

Singling out tracks for praise is redundant as they are all of uniform high quality and import. The Radiohead cover ‘The Tourist’ is a favourite, and expresses the sensitivity and wildness of the original while giving it a generous amount of spin via the use of acoustic instruments. Old Smitty reminds me of the Grateful Dawg music created by Jerry Garcia, David Grisman & Tony Rice and brimming with ideas is treat for musicians, as each player pushes aspects of collective improvisation within Jarosz’s bluegrass composition. Jerry Douglas’ virtuoso dobro is undeniable on this track but then he is a unabashed legend in session circles (784 album credits over the course of his career and counting!) and has joined Jerry Garcia’s alumni on various records since 1979. 

I definitely could have just made a record that was similar to the last one – pretty rootsy… that would have been a representation of a side of me. But I have all these new sounds and ideas and I just didn't want to old back on this one

Reflects Sarah earnestly, though contextually I'd be hard pressed to think how anyone could make a rootsier sounding record without using Alan Lomax's recording equipment or overdubbing vinyl scratches. Overall, Follow Me Down is a smooth satisfying ride that encourages repeated plays with slow rises and bends. If you’re absolutely attached to hair-pin turns, dizzying heights and abysmal lows, I suggest medication and failing that Punk or Breakcore. However, if in a moment of clarity you yearn for some calm yet fantastic music then Sarah Jarosz will not disappoint.

Released May 17th on Sugar Hill Records

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