Wednesday, May 31, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1012: Sarah Jarosz

This is my third Sarah Jarosz review in the last sixteen albums. Sarah Jarosz is everywhere on the CD Odyssey these days. The only logical conclusion is that the Sarah Jarosz Reign of Terror is upon us! Flee for your lives!

Actually, don’t. Sarah Jarosz is probably very gentle and kind. Her music is certainly beautiful. And besides, I’m now out of Sarah Jarosz albums, so her reign ends here, at least for now.

Disc 1012 is…Build Me Up From Bones
Artist: Sarah Jarosz

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? Sarah Jarosz looks very traditional here, with her buttoned up blouse and piled up hair. She also looks a bit like Aubrey Plaza, if Aubrey Plaza were a folk singer.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve told this story a lot recently (see teaser above) but basically I was investigating a different bluegrass artist (Aoife O’Donovan) and discovered I liked Jarosz even more. I was particularly drawn to her 2016 release, “Undercurrent” and worked backward from there. "Build Me Up From Bones" was the first step in that backward journey.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Sarah Jarosz albums. I had originally reserved second spot for this album, but upon further review I find it isn’t quite as strong as “Follow Me Down” so I am bumping that album up to second. “Build Me Up From Bones” drops to third.

As this is (quite suddenly) my full Sarah Jarosz collection, here’s a recap:

  1. Undercurrent: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1004)
  2. Follow Me Down: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 996)
  3. Build Me Up From Bones: 2 stars (reviewed right here)
Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

The thing that always strikes me first about Sarah Jarosz is her exceptional musicianship, both vocally and on the many instruments she plays (guitar, banjo and – in particular – the octave mandolin). While the songs on “Build Me Up From Bones” aren’t quite as strong as those on the albums that came before and after, that musicianship still carries the day and makes this an enjoyable record.

Once again, Jarosz continues her mix of smooth pop, bluegrass and contemporary folk, working them well together and balancing more traditional sounds with ethereal and atmospheric numbers. Also, there is a little jazz. Sometimes, a little too much jazz, at least for me.

The best of the atmospheric songs is “Mile On the Moon” which is grounded in a simple guitar strum and punctuated with jazzy notes here and there to give it a dreamy quality that meanders through the back doors of your mind.

This approach doesn’t always work on “Build Me Up From Bones.” “Anything Else” feels a bit too much like contemporary easy listening music, lacking the edge it needs to have an emotional impact.

When the songs are stripped down, or even where Jarosz’ octave mandolin is simply higher in the mix as it is on the title track, things worked a lot better for me. Jarosz is an incredible talent on this instrument and I think I could sit and listen to her play scales and be content. The title track is additionally aided by the great vocals of Aoife O’Donovan, the artist who led me to discover Jarosz in the first place.

Another mandolin high point is Jarosz’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” where a slow but insistent pluck feels like it is being played on your heartstrings. Not literally of course; that would be painful. With just a lone cello accompanying her, there is plenty of space for her to explore both with her instrument and her voice, and she keeps it tasteful and restrained throughout. It isn’t at the same level as her version of “Ring Them Bells” (on the “Follow Me Down” record) but its close.

Unfortunately, after “Simple Twist of Fate” the last half of the record didn’t grab me the same way. In particular, “The Book of Right On” landed very wrong for me. I think it was supposed to be playful and experimental, but the lyrics felt awkward, and the tune lands on the wrong side of lounge singer. If you are wondering what the wrong side of that is, it’s the jazz side.

The rest of side two is better, and the songs have a nice dreamy quality to them. The musicianship also remains at a very high level, but the songs didn’t have the emotional punch that the first half of the record gave me and on each listen I felt my interest waning near the end.

Overall “Build Me Up From Bones” felt like an album where Jarosz is spreading her artistic wings. This is a good thing, but with that experimentation comes songs that can be hit and miss. Three years later this would lead to great things on “Undercurrent” so I can hardly complain about the journey that led her there.

Best tracks: Mile on the Moon, Build Me Up From Bones, Dark Road, Simple Twist of Fate

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