Gifted Texan singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz has been making music almost all her young life and Undercurrent, her fourth solo album, sees her exploring further from her bluegrass roots and into classic singer-songwriter territory, with various folk, pop and blues influences in evidence. Still only in her mid-20s, Jarosz was signed to Sugar Hill Records while in high school and released debut album Song Up in Her Head aged just 18. Originally known as a mandolin prodigy and performing at bluegrass festivals in the USA from a young age, Sarah is also a fine singer and accomplished guitar, clawhammer banjo and octave mandolin player. In addition to all these gifts, it’s her talent as a songwriter and music creator that sets her apart from many of her contemporaries, and she’s achieved several Grammy nominations already. Though still not universally known on the folk and roots scene in the UK, Jarosz has been building up a faithful following while touring here regularly over the last six years. Her reputation was boosted by being featured on the 5th season of the Transatlantic Sessions TV series and she’s a prolific collaborator, recording and performing with numerous big hitters of the genre, including Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien and Chris Thile. Recently she’s embarked on another side project, the all-female supergroup I’m With Her (Union Chapel Live Review here), which also includes Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still) and Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek).
Undercurrent is Jarosz’s first release since graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and her first since relocating to New York City. Unusually for Sarah, it’s made up entirely of original songs (including a number of co-writes); despite her songwriting prowess, previous releases have always included a couple of fine cover versions. This focus on original work and music creation further intensifies the impression that Jarosz is prioritising her progression as a songwriter. Guitar is her preferred instrument on the majority of songs, with Sarah playing clawhammer banjo on just one track. Mandolin, formerly her primary instrument, isn’t featured at all although its bigger brother, the octave mandolin, makes quite a few appearances. Talented guest musicians (including veteran roots musician Mark Schatz on bass) perform on many of the songs here, alongside a number of purely solo tracks.
Opener Early Morning Light sets the emotional tone for much of the album, a wistful and regretful reflection on lost love with Sarah’s rich, mellow vocal backed by acoustic guitar. Green Lights is a complete contrast, a light hearted, dreamy slice of folk-pop with Luke Reynolds’ acoustic and electric guitars layered over the octave mandolin, which occasionally sounds like sitar on this outing. Luke’s harmony vocal throughout much of the song adds to the West Coast feel. For me House of Mercy is one of the standout tracks, a memorable and brilliantly constructed song co-written with Sarah’s longtime collaborator Jedd Hughes. The theme of moving on and lost love re-surfaces but here the feel is hard-edged and gritty. The author makes it plain that she ain’t gonna be treated this way (as the old song goes) and the claustrophobic atmosphere builds throughout, with the guitar and octave mandolin reflecting the vocal theme of the chorus. Everything to Hide continues strongly with the slight feeling of menace and like the opener it’s driven by the simple but effective twin force of Sarah’s voice and acoustic guitar.
Back of my Mind is a lilting song with some mellow pedal steel from Reynolds, and Comin’ Undone shakes things up with a foray into funky blues/folk fusion. Despite the lyrical references to the world going to hell in a handcart, it’s a feelgood number with Tim Lauer adding distinctive B3 organ stylings, and there’s a recurring motif in the lyrics which harks back to Sarah’s debut Song Up in My Head. Another of the album’s strong solo tracks, Take Another Turn features beautiful guitar work from Sarah as she muses on the human condition. The only song to feature clawhammer banjo, Lost Dog aches with melancholy as Jedd Hughes complements Jarosz on guitar as well as subtle harmony singing, and Mark Schatz contributes some gorgeous bowed bass. Take Me Back also features a fine harmony vocal from Hughes, which initially had me reaching for the liner notes as it’s so reminiscent of Paul Simon, one of Sarah’s musical heroes. Still Life (co-written with Aoife O’Donovan) is another bittersweet, achingly lovely slice of music, this time featuring Sarah’s I’m With Her bandmates O’Donovan and Sara Watkins, who make classy contributions on guitar/harmony vocal and fiddle respectively. Album closer, the lovely lament Jacqueline, is another showcase of Jarosz’s solo powers as she accompanies herself on delicate electric guitar.
There is a definite shape to the album and it’s a rewarding experience to listen to the whole thing in sequence. As Jarosz herself explains, “This is the first record I’ve ever made that feels to me like a complete thought, with a beginning, a middle and an ending. I wanted it to feel like the rollercoaster ride that is life, so I put a lot of thought into sequencing the songs. It was important for me to start with light, and then go through darker times, and stubbornness and strength and weakness, and then end up on a hopeful note.” All in all, Undercurrent is a fine, thoughtful collection of songs, beautifully performed by Sarah Jarosz and her musical partners and showcasing a supremely gifted and still relatively unknown artist maturing into her prime.
Undercurrent is Out Now via Sugar Hill Records
Sarah is touring the UK later this year in November which kicks off on 15 November at London’s Union Chapel, see dates below:
Sarah Jarosz UK Tour Dates
NOV 15 TUE – Union Chapel, London
NOV 16 WED – The Met, Bury
NOV 17 THU – Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
NOV 18 FRI – Firth Hall, Sheffield
NOV 19 SAT – Sage Gateshead, Gateshead