No Surf Music


The No Surf Review


The Lowdown:

Sarah Jarosz

Based In:
Boston, MA/Austin, TX



Follow Me Down

Release Date:
May 17, 2011

Sugar Hill Records

Previous Releases:
Song Up In Her Head (2009)

Americana, bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, folk

Sarah Jarosz, Follow Me Down album cover

Rating: 9 out of 10



May 16, 2011


Sarah Jarosz: Follow Me Down

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Sarah Jarosz, musical prodigy and durn snazzy dresser. Photo by Scott Simontacchi.

The word “revelation” is the most overused term in the music review lexicon. When is something truly a revelation? Moses on Mt. Sinai: that was a revelation. Joseph Smith and the golden plates: that was a revelation. John the Revelator and the Book of the Seven Seals: that was a revelation (not to mention a damn good tune). But a collection of songs inscribed electronically on shiny plastic disks and distributed by a big, faceless corporation via a corrupt, flawed and publicity-driven system of mass media whoring…?

Well, Sarah Jarosz’s 2009 release Song Up In Her Head really was revelatory. That someone so young (17 when the album was recorded) could be such an adept musician, such a soulful singer, such a compelling lyricist, such a spirited songwriter—in short such a talented songstress—truly was a revelation for the Americana music scene. And unlike the previous examples, it actually happened.

Song Up In Her Head left the listener with one burning question: if she’s this good now, then what’s next? Well, now we know what’s next. It’s Follow Me Down, an album set for release just before her 20th birthday. On it, Jarosz plays no less than eight different instruments and incorporates the talents of a bevy of musicians including her normal backup players Alex Hargreaves and Nathaniel Smith as well as luminaries such as Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Viktor Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Shawn Colvin, Vince Gill and Darrell Scott. It builds in every way on the bare roots base of her first album, taking her songwriting and musicianship to whole new levels and expanding the boundaries of the bluegrass genre to the point that they are gleefully beyond definition.

The album opens with “Run Away” a highly textured and dreamy piece about forbidden love. Jarosz’s voice is low, dark and rich on the verses, but then jumps several octaves and floats overtop the picked rhythm on the chorus. The song’s Appalachian roots are evident, but it declares right off the bat that this album will be different with its bass and cello string accompaniment and an electric guitar, something that would have seemed sacrilegious on her first album but which fits in perfectly here. The lyrics themselves add to the dreamy feeling and are loaded with poetic imagery, as in the last verse which reads:

Lay with me down by the riverside,
Stars in the sky shining in your eyes.
We won’t make a sound. No one will be around.
We can run away.

The song is also notable for being the subject of Jarosz's first music video, an equally dreamy piece that depicts a G-rated version of the teenage liason featured in the song itself.

The following track is the album's first single, “Come Around,” a faster-paced, more bluegrassy tune. Béla Fleck’s banjo takes a prominent role, yet there’s a rock n’ roll backbeat. The song contains what may be the mission statement for the album, and perhaps Sarah herself:

I may be young; I may be old.
I may be telling; I may be told.
I may be wise; I may be bold.
But I’ll come around.

The next selection is perhaps the best track on the album, an absolutely beautiful adaptation of Edgar Alan Poe’s last poem, the haunting “Annabel Lee," published just after his death in 1849. Edited to fit the musical meter, modernized slightly in language, and curiously retitled “Annabelle Lee,” the song captures the spirit of Poe’s dark writing perfectly and surpasses anything Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, or any other modern bluegrass master could produce.

"Annabelle Lee" demonstrates not only the diversity of Jarosz’s literary influences, but the fact that she is a master of musical adaptation. But that is nothing new. The best songs on her first album were both covers. To say that the first—a version of the Decemberists’ Troubles-era Northern Irish murder ballad “Shankill Butchers”—was better than the original would be a vast understatement. It completely outclasses the original in every way. In fact, it is so good that I can no longer listen to the Decemberists’ version. I have banned it from my playlists, wiped it from my memory, and politely asked it not to attend the office Christmas party. The second cover from Song Up In Her Head, “Come On Up to the House” was even more audacious being that it was written by no less a master than Tom Waits, and her version of one of his best compositions is at least as good as his. She’s that good.

Jarosz, looking appropriately angelic for a discussion of "Ring Them Bells." Photo by Scott Simontacchi.

This audacity was not tempered in the selections for the cover pieces on Follow Me Down. The first reimagines the work of no less than Bob Dylan, in the form of “Ring Them Bells.” True, it may not be as brave as trying to top “Like a Rolling Stone,” but digging up one of the Great One’s oft-forgotten masterpieces demonstrates the true reverence that the religiously themed work requires. It is a perfectly tuned rendition in which Jarosz’s voice is gorgeous, the harmonies provided by Vince Gill are spot-on, and Jerry Douglas delivers a masterful performance on a Weissenborn slide guitar.

The second cover is no less daring, as Jarosz takes on “The Tourist,” a song by Radiohead. Here, she is backed by the Punch Brothers. It was hard to imagine how the original, brazenly electric alternative rock piece with highly reverbed vocals would translate into Jarosz’s acoustic format, but again she has proven her skill, taking the song and making it her own. If anything, the key dreamlike qualities are amplified by the traditional instrumentation and Sarah’s drawn-out vocals, making it undeniably more interesting than the original.

The album also includes two instrumentals. “Peace” is very mellow and light, as the name would suggest, and is a tune she started writing when she was twelve.  “Old Smitty” is a Celtic piece with an added bluegrass tinge due to the presence of Douglas’s dobro. It is a complex and lively composition and Sarah’s mandolin picking is light and masterful, the raw talent she displayed on her first album obviously refined by her intervening musical study. Like “Mansinneedof” before it, I fully expect this song to earn a Grammy nomination for best instrumental, although this album deserves more nods on top of that.

I'm not entirely sure Ms. Jarosz agrees with my lyrical assessement. Well, just keep reading, Sarah. You'll forgive me. Photo by Scott Simontacchi.

There is only one track on Follow Me Down that leaves the listener in any way dissatisfied, and that is “My Muse.” The song’s lyrics rely heavy on assonance and occasionally feel immature, as if scribbled in marker on the pages of a spiral notebook by a teenage girl. This could easily be excused in light of the fact that Jarosz is, in fact, a teenage girl, but she is usually much better than her years. Still, if John Lennon may be given absolution for the unpardonable sin of rhyming a word with itself, then Sarah can certainly be forgiven this lyrical slip up, and it doesn’t do anything to ruin the music, which features her on both mandolin and electric guitar overtop a three-piece string base.

This album may best be summed up in Jarosz’s own words from the song “Floating in the Balance”:

Sonic satisfaction
Holds my ears in sweet embrace,
The endless chain reaction
Of what we give and what we take.

Sarah certainly gives much more than she could ever take, and Follow Me Down is absolutely unparalleled, better than anything that has come before in the genre that she so adeptly bends to her artistic will. It is undoubtedly deserving of the No Surf Review’s first ever perfect “hang ten” rating, and is so powerful, so groundbreaking and such a marked improvement on her already strong work that the listener is left with only one burning question: if she’s this good now, then what’s next?


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