June 16, 2009
Song Up in Her Head
Interview emerging country music stars today and it may surprise you—especially if you listen to the radio—that they are all influenced by Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and (if they play mandolin) Bill Monroe. When you find that they also claim to emulate artists such as Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson or whoever else has recently gone platinum (with the exception of the Dixie Chicks), it can be almost discouraging to consider that few are even that traditional.
This brings us to Sarah Jarosz, whose debut with Sugar Hill Records, Song Up in Her Head, presents a very different view of influences and a noticeably different performer in its eighteen year old co-producer.
Seven years ago, while requesting an autograph from Chris Thile, Sarah Jarosz, not yet a teenager, expressed interest in, someday, playing music with Chris Thile. Since then, she has added Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Aofie O’Donavan, and Abigail Washburn—all who appear on her album—to her most often quoted list of influences. As a result, we are presented with an impressive, but much less calculated list than one might expect from a newcomer. Given that these are some of my favorite artists, it also sets a high bar with this particular reviewer. Fortunately for this recent high school graduate who plays mandolin, guitar, clawhammer banjo, octave mandolin, piano, and toy piano (we will get to that) on her debut album, these lofty expectations are not beyond her ability.
Song Up in Her Head opens with its title track, a progressive bluegrass number that will remind listeners (in no small part to Chris Thile’s contribution) of progressive acoustic prodigies of the past. While those influences certainly exist, it would be a mistake to use them to typecast Jarosz, who has as much in common musically with Darrel Scott or Gillian Welch as she does with the progressive acoustic scene.
From the well-written “Tell me True,” which rolls comfortably upon tight lyrics and a repeating chorus, to “Left Home,” and impressive vocal number with the outstanding Aofie O’Donovan singing harmony vocals Jarosz more than establishes her songwriting credentials penning eleven of thirteen tracks on the album. Particularly notable is the balance between youth and maturity that seems to exist throughout these songs. Presenting the experiences of Sarah Jarosz, they only occasionally feel adolescent, always managing to escape the self-importance rampant among pop music acts her age. The finest example of this comes in “Broussard’s Lament,” a challenging song written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that came out of “an interview on the Sunday morning news program “Meet the Press,” with a man named Aaron Broussard. His interview was heart wrenching, and it inspired me to write the tune.”
Inserted neatly between her songs are two well-chosen covers, Tom Waits “Come on Up to the House” and The Decemberists “Shankill Butchers.” While the Tom Waits cover is notable, “Shankill Butchers” excellent production makes it stand out. Using a toy piano along with Sarah’s compelling vocals, its mood ideally fits the modern nursery rhyme to the degree that it outshines the original recording.
Despite being an accomplished singer and mandolin player Sarah Jarosz does not go out of her way to list Bill Monroe as an influence—and the thing is she doesn’t have to. Unlike those pronouncing the influences that they feel they should have, with Song Up in Her Head you can hear influences being explored side by side with the effects of her colleagues close mentoring. Sarah Jarosz’ debut is delightfully distinct; supplementing her own talents with the best just-off-the-radar artists available today she has found a voice that will undoubtedly continue to produce eloquent music for another fifty years.