Last week I spent a road trip consisting of six hours in a car, each way, with the latest effort from multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz. I then got home and proceeded to continue listening to this record over and over again. If that tells you anything, its that the well-crafted songs contained within the collection have an addictive staying power. Jarosz manages to walk a very delicate line between virtuosity in her musical abilities with catchiness and hooks that reel you in and keep you listening. Undercurrent finds the songwriter in a place of maturity and growth. There is much of the same in her voicing, of course, compared to 2013’s Build Me Up From Bones, but and underlying personal development and experience draws a common thread throughout the album’s tracks. The incredible musicality is there, but it is far from a crutch. The lines she paints with her instruments, particularly on the octave mandolin, are brilliant and beautiful. Engaging and intriguing.
As with the color palette of the record cover, there is a bit of a droll, grey feel to the album overall, which i just fine by us. Sad songs make the world go round. Evocative and emotion driven writing and intonation fall across the landscape of the 11 tracks. Even with the blanketing of monochrome tinge and introspective nature of the writing, it is incredibly approachable in part due to the nature of the singer’s vocal. It is an incredibly personal feeling record and with each line you delve a bit further into the stories and emotion that she was feeling at the time. She is incredibly successful at portraying a past moment in a song and bringing you into the fold of the time and place she was in in that moment.
Undercurrent sees a further shedding of the bluegrass skin that Sarah has grown up in overtime. Along with contemporaries such as Chris Thile and Punch Brothers and I’m With Her bandmates Sara Watkins and Aoife O’ Donovan, she is pioneering a genre melding movement that is inclusive of many influences, sounds and instrumentation but certainly not exclusive to putting any one song or performance into a box and calling it “x”.
Aside from the writing, the perhaps most standout characteristic of this record is the layered harmonies, both vocal and instrumental in form, that dot the canvas of the songwriter’s work here. At moments, incredibly sparse and at others filled but still with a large amount of space to just live in with the feelings that the music imparts upon you. What she has created with these songs and arrangements is an innate fashion in which a listener can really be a part of the experience and not just the one on the receiving end. That is a magical thing.
There is a run of 3 tracks that really hit me hard towards the tail end of the album: “Lost Dog”, ‘Take Me Back”, and “Still Life”. “Dog” feeling incredibly hollow, almost disparate and astonishingly sad. It is overwhelming in the best possible way. “Take Me Back” feels a bit more optimistic, with droning guitar notes and vocal accompaniment that is simple, but impactful.
“Still Life” is my favorite of the bunch and the addition of Watkins and O’Donovan really brings additional life and energy to the tune. The way in which these three artists and their voices work together is unlike anything else out there. Shivers and chills galore. It is human and honest and real. As the harmonies on “baby I’d tell you more if I knew just what to say / but you never ask me anyway” hit you its all over. A phrase so simple that strikes down so hard in its delivery. This song destroys me…and thats a really amazing thing.
‘Undercurrent’ is as melancholy and contemplative as it is uplifting and light. The imagery that the songwriter is able to elicit in her writing takes new heights and the richness and intensity balanced with the subtle and tempered arrangements. There is an undeniable theme contained within of pushing forward despite obstacles that line your path and attempt to impede your movement. Looking back as they are washed over in your wake, but leaving a few dings in the hull of your ship in the process. A beautiful new record from a brilliant performer.