Scott Simontacchi Photo
Old-time American music and contemporary folk are all too often mutually exclusive. A rare and precious jewel is the artist who can stand in both worlds without artifice. Over the last few years, former bluegrass prodigy Sarah Jarosz rose up through the ranks of traditional folk and with her new album, proves that she can fly with the big names in modern folk music. And perhaps show them a thing or two about writing from the heart.
Undercurrent (out 6/17/2016 on the Sugar Hill label) is a deep, velvety and darkly gorgeous record, and the first of her four releases to not include cover songs. She says it is the first record she has made that feels like a complete thought. “In some ways, it feels like my first record, in the sense that it was the first time I could focus all of my energy on it. Everything felt like it was leading to this moment.”
From her first performance at a bluegrass festival at the age of 11 to signing with Sugar Hill Records at 16, to the recent critical success of the mini-supergroup I’m with Her, Sarah Jarosz has become a darling of the folk world. When she sings and picks, you hear a smooth and distinctly American beauty . She plays clawhammer banjo like a champ, but so do others; it’s her mastery of the archtop octave mandolin that sets her apart. (Move over, Tim O’Brien and Eli West! ) The unusual instrument has seen a big surge in popularity along with the rise of Sarah Jarosz.
Sonically, the album contains a wide range of production values, and yet holds together quite well. Most songs carry on in the vein of the gorgeous, big-hall sound established by I’m With Her and her bandmate Aoife O’Donovan. Opening track “Early Morning Light” has a classic Gillian Welch quality that promises to enshrine it as a ubiquitous favorite. The Weepies-esqe song “Green Lights” basks in a lush uber-modern sound, with deep layering and supersize reverb, and so far it’s my favorite. Contrast that with “Everything to Hide,” a Mississippi fingerstyle blues groove recorded simply and close-miked for intimacy. The single now out on Spotify and YouTube is “House of Mercy,” a minor-scale slow dance that belies the pedigree of Tom Petty’s “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” We love it!