Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sarah Jarosz - Song Up In Her Head

Rating: B+

I saw her live a couple months ago at Johnny D's with The Infamous Stringdusters, and when her album Song Up In Her Head went on sale for just $1.99 on Amazon, I had to pick it up. As expected, it featured Jarosz' gifted singing, songwriting, and playing of various instruments. While her solo show was strictly solo, Jarosz accompanying herself on guitar or clawhammer banjo, here she's got a whole team of guest musicians to flesh out the sound: Mike Marshall, Chris Eldridge, Aoife O'Donovan, Tim O'Brien, Ben Sollee, and more. It doesn't sound over-produced, nor does it just seem a show-case for the guest to throw in breaks; it sounds like Jarosz' record throughout, not a Frankenstein's monster of various guest appearances.

And what does a Jarosz record sound like? She gets categorized as bluegrass, but the two covers on here betray further influences. "Shankill Butchers", a Decemberists track, is just as creepy here as when it appeared on 2006's The Crane Wife. "Come On Up To The House," a Tom Waits tune, is maybe the best vocal performance on the record - it sounds like a traditional black Southern Baptist spiritual. Another emotional high point is original Broussard's Lament, based on Hurricane Katrina. The tragic chorus ("They told us Thursday they would come / They told us Friday they would come") is underscored by her powerful voice. At times, however, her vocals are over-the-top and could use a bit more restraint.

Another highlight is the title track, keyed by a really tight mandolin riff and some clever lyrics (the title comes from the line "This bird flies higher with a song up in her head"). Jarosz has a nice feel for songwriting and the album is eclectic, using traditional acoustical instrumentation in both conventional and in more progressive ways. The most direct influence seems to be Nickel Creek, and it's easy to see a line between Sara Watkins and Jarosz.

I've almost managed to get through the whole review with using the word "precocious," but it has to be said: Jarosz is just 18. This album would be a strong debut if she were twice that age. She's got compelling talent and a real feel for traditional music; the future of acoustic music is in good hands.

Buy it from Amazon:
Song Up In Her Head
Sarah Jarosz' Web Site

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