Albums I Love: Sarah Jarosz – “Undercurrent”

I am so incredibly excited for the weekend.

Chris Thile + The Punch Brothers, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan… ALL IN ONE SHOW!

Perfect timing, because Sarah Jarosz’s new album came out on June 17th, and Sara Watkins’ will be out on July 1st. My ears are very, very happy.

_____

Sara Jarosz – “Undercurrent”

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of child prodigies. They tend to be all flash and skill, too many notes and not enough soul. I love a fast guitar solo as much as the next guitar nerd, but it has to make me feel something. If you show me a ten year old who can play guitar miles and miles above anything I can do (not hard, these days), I’ll tell you I’d rather hear him again in 15 years when he’s had his heart broken and gained some life experience to give meaning to those five million notes. It’s pretty judgemental, cynical, and presumptuous, I know. I also sound like a total hypocrite, considering Chris Thile and Sara Watkins got their start in the child prodigy supergroup, Nickel Creek. The greatest thing to me is hearing them develop past the flash of their younger days. I hear something new every time I listen to a Punch Brother’s album, and seeing Sara sing “Lock & Key” live in March brought me to tears. While I love Nickel Creek, what I love even more is seeing these phenomenally talented child prodigies continue to grow as musicians with something to say.

And now to the child prodigy of the hour!

Born and raised in Texas with a voice straight out of Appalachia, Sarah Jarosz released her first album while she was still in high school. I had NO IDEA she was that young when I first heard it. Something about that album really resonated with me, and I’ve been hooked ever since. This girl is a year younger than me, and I feel totally slayed when I watch her, much more than I ever do when I see a 10 year old play the “Beat It” solo on YouTube.

This is Sarah in 2009. Her song and sound are full of innocence with none of the contrived flash. I hear an old soul resonating through the sweet voice of this young woman who is just beginning to tap into her potential.

With several Grammy nominations, three albums, and a degree from the New England Conservatory of Music under her belt, Ms. Jarosz released “Undercurrent” just a week ago.

I’ve been listening to all of her albums on repeat in an attempt to connect the dots of her musical evolution. There’s also an element of camaraderie since we’re so close in age, went to music school, and eventually ended up in NYC. While she was recording that first album, I was obsessing over Gillian Welch and contemplating majoring in Appalachian Studies. I want to see if she grew to see the world the same way I did in our parallel years. If so, I wish I could express it through music half as well as she can.

The theme of this album is an undercurrent, a metaphor for itself as Sarah muses about the mystical space between what we’re thinking versus what we’re communicating.

(Geeze, this is bringing me back to a paper I wrote in high school. Hey, maybe I’m the hipster version of Sarah. I totally wrote about the theme of her album before it was cool… as did thousands of people before me. Oops)

Highlights:

“Green Lights,” initially my least-favorite song on the album, really started to grow on me. I see it as a dream-sequence of the early, surreal parts of a romantic relationship. While it’s well-constructed, I wasn’t really a fan of the production. Something about it brought to mind Pat Metheny at during his finest elevator music days. I do love Pat, but his music does go that route here and there. It’s a bit of a bizarre comparison, eccentric jazz guitarist to a folk singer, but click here if you don’t believe me. Something about the melody.. It drove me crazy trying to think of what it reminded me of.

“House of Mercy” is by far the catchiest song on on the album, reeling in those Pandora listeners and hooking them onto the magic of Jarosz. With a dark, haunted feel and beautiful convergence of bluegrass and country, it’s a throwback to the sound of The Civil Wars (RIP!) and the modern Americana-folk style that digests easily with the masses. I love it.

Absolute favorite song? “Everything to Hide,” the song that produces the album’s title and reoccurring theme.

Beautiful and clear, with only minimal acoustic guitar accompaniment, Sarah’s voice is up front and her heart is clearly beating on her sleeve as she sings of forbidden love and restraint. It’s one of those dramatic “Will they or won’t they?”plot lines we all love to speculate on in our TV shows and movies.

“Well, I never really thought that I could be a child of sin.
Now here I come confessing of these childish hopes within
But you said hope is always there, so what’s a girl to do?
I should quit while I’m ahead, but I ain’t through with you.

I guess I’ll stand right here and hold my tongue.
For all I know, I’m the only one.
But do you feel this undercurrent, and the changing of the tides?
When I’m with you baby, we got everything to hide.”

These are no longer the words of an 18 year-old girl wistfully singing the question schoolgirl crushes have been asking years – “Do you think of me the way I think of you?” This is the voice of a woman who has been through some s*** and knows what she wants, but has also gained enough wisdom to realize that she shouldn’t have it.

You eventually grow weary of the game, once you get to the point where you can it visualize it unfolding the exact same way each time. This realization doesn’t necessarily stop you from recklessly plowing ahead anyway, but at least you know what you’re getting into. And hey.. emotional restraint is what your 30’s are for, right? Get, it girl. I’m very familiar with this story. Maybe it’ll end well for both of us one of these days.

In the song “Take Another Turn,” Sarah ponders many of the questions we all ask ourselves during our routine existential crises. Or I do, at least..  I’m over-quoting her lyrics here because I love them so much.

“What does it mean to be lost?
Can’t find your way on a map
You took the wrong turn, forgot where you came from
And now there ain’t no going back.

What does it mean to be lonely?
You’re sitting alone in a room
And all you can hear is the ringing in your ears
There ain’t no one to talk to but you.

Should you take another turn?
Can you find another way?
Should you talk to yourself a little more,
push right through that closed door?

What does it mean to be hungry?
Hungry and hunting and wild
And only the best will allow you to rest,
You’ll be hungry again come morning time.”

Damn girl. You understand that mid-20’s existential crisis better than anyone I know. I’m aware of my self-indulgence… This song is universal. We all have these musings starting in middle school, though we eventually learn to hide them through self-denial and the mundane nature of our 9-5 routines instead of scribbling angsty pop-punk lyrics on our Algebra homework.

“Lost Dog” brings us the metaphor of well… a lost dog. Sarah sings in her lower register, husky and chilling with only a banjo and a low male woof (err..voice) accompanying her.

“Lost dog, something ’bout you breaks my heart.
Why’re you burying bones out in the yard?
I don’t know if I wanna know where you’ve been.
But lost dog, maybe I’ll let you in.

If I open my door, make you my friend
Are you gonna run out and get lost again?”

I like to take in lost dogs myself, literally and metaphorically, so I feel ya, Sarah, I do. I’m sure you later wrote “Everything to Hide” about this “Lost Dog,” because you knew you couldn’t have him due to his penchant for burying bones out in the yard and getting himself lost again. See? I told you, I can always visualize how it will end.

On “Take Me Back,” Sarah wistfully recalls the comfort of her relationship, but makes it clear in the chorus that it’s not coming back. The song serves as a juxtaposition of beautiful memories and harsh reality, the opposite of the whimsical and joyous “Green Lights” at the beginning of the album.

“Love like I never knew before
someday will fade and be ignored
Nothing is forever anymore.”

If she’s still singing about the “Lost Dog,” he also seems like kind of an uncommunicative jerk in the song “Still Life.” Sarah documents the unraveling of this romance – the unclear, bumpy ending where both parties can feel the ship sinking but aren’t sure how to man the lifeboat. He doesn’t want to talk about it; she doesn’t know how to get him to listen. They’re two magnets, pushing together in one direction and pulling apart in the other as this “undercurrent” topples the ship.

“Baby, I’d tell you more,
if I knew just what to say.
But you never asked me anyway
Baby, I’d ask for less if I knew I had your ear
and every other part of you.”

The album closes with “Jacqueline,” an absolutely gorgeous, abstract, and aching song about a friendship with.. Jackie Kennedy? I mean, who else could Jacqueline with the “pillbox hat and the bright pink dress” be?

There’s musing, hopeful calm to the song. I swore I wouldn’t look at other reviews before I penned my own thoughts on this album, but I was really curious about her inspiration for this song. It made a lot more sense when I saw this review on Popmatters.com

“The album ends with “Jacqueline,” which finds her reflecting at the waters of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park. Jarosz grew up in Texas but is now a New Yorker. When she performed this song to a hometown crowd in Austin during this year’s South by Southwest, Jarosz explained that the reservoir is the place she goes to find peace. She communes with the former First Lady as a way of examining her personal thoughts and feelings. The song offers the hope that only the dead can provide, that there is still hope for the living.”

I TOTALLY WROTE SONGS IN CENTRAL PARK, TOO! Okay, I wrote one, and it was about how much I sort of hated living in New York. Central Park wasn’t really the best spot for inspiration on that song, since it’s beautiful and one of the best parts of the city. Maybe that’s why it just doesn’t match up to these gems Sarah keeps releasing.

Overall, this album is breathtakingly gorgeous and reflective. I absolutely love the simplicity of the instrumentation. Sarah’s voice is strong and mature, but she can still change her tone back to the old-soul innocence of her first album when the song calls for it. The mix places it solidly up-front, coming through the speakers as though she’s singing in your ear, clear and sweet. There is no better place for that voice of hers.

Despite the fact that our late teen to mid-20’s life parallel is rather vague, I can absolutely see my own heartache, struggles, and life questions in Sarah’s songs. She writes with an insight and authenticity that make her relatable to any age –  a child prodigy who is still exploring her own potential as she matures (and looks like April Ludgate from Parks & Rec, which is badass). I’m in-between careers, cities, and friendships, yet asking the same questions she ponders in “Undercurrent.”

You’re awesome, Sarah. We’ll both figure it out one day. Until then… I CAN’T WAIT TO WATCH YOU PERFORM LIVE THIS WEEKEND! ❤

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Albums I Love: Sarah Jarosz – “Undercurrent”

  1. Pingback: Albums I Love: Sarah Jarosz – “Undercurrent” – Meanderings of My Soul
  2. Pingback: Shows I’ve Seen: American Acoustic Festival, Part I | caffeinated music

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