Reviewed by: Asher Wolf
Sarah Jarosz is a 25-year-old veteran of Americana. She topped the US Bluegrass chart at age 18 with Songs Up in My Head, collaborating with icons including Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas, and the great Chris Thile. A year later, Follow Me Down added Bela Fleck and Dan Tyminski to the list. But Jarosz herself has garnered too much well-deserved prestige to be defined by her sidemen. On Undercurrent, her fourth release, she asserts herself as an emotive, highly developed, multi-talented artist without resorting to technical flare or heavy-handed grandeur.
In fact, this self-reflective collection is ridiculously calm – the type of thing one would expect from a middle-aged musician wistfully reminiscing about the heady days of her youth. I spent the first half of the album waiting for the drop that never came. Undercurrent starts mellow and stays that way, keeping its momentum throughout all 11 diverse tracks without ever exceeding a moderato. The record is true to its name throughout, using understated means to create a compelling emotional tug.
It is a daunting task to keep 40 minutes of music fresh with such a bounded spectrum of tempos, and Jarosz’ success is due partially to her multi-instrumental prowess. She gently brushes her banjo for the lonesome number “Lost Dog” and adorns the florid groove of “Green Lights” with octave mandolin arpeggiations. On the guitar alone, Jarosz taps into a wide variety of sounds. “House of Mercy” opens with dusty blues changes, while the closing track, “Jacqueline”, floats on a reverb-heavy, electric finger-picking pattern, and “Take Another Turn” skips with a melodic, capoed figure reminiscent of folk-pop (think Ed Sheeran with a spring in his step and a Bob Dylan chord progression). Jarosz’s controlled and relaxed vocal style is equally versatile. Brimming with a hint of country swagger, her full-bodied tone is as well suited for the intimate isolation of “Early Morning Light” as for the airy harmonies on “Take Me Back”.
That being said, her musicality is most apparent in spare arrangements. The whole band plays with delicate deliberation, shifting focus to the songwriting rather than drawing attention to itself like the pyrotechnics of bluegrass. Nearly every strum and pluck sounds like a compositional choice. Tracks like “Comin’ Undone” feel raw and natural, with orchestration that helps the listener pay attention to the song instead of distracting from it.
And these are songs that deserve an expert delivery. Jarosz seems to look for the simplest way to express each musical idea, rather than choosing to spice things up beyond what is necessary. She roots her songs in the comfort of convention, but throws in just enough curve balls to make them elegantly unique. “Still Life” and “Jacqueline” use common chords but get screwy with the harmonic rhythm. Jarosz sometimes slips from one chord to the next with unpredictable urgency or lets a chord linger just beyond its expected length. The powerful tunes feel even more genuine due to their lack of cliche.
Listening to Undercurrent is like trying to view beautiful scenery at night. That which is merely a pleasant backdrop at first glance becomes a fascinating landscape as your eyes adjust and details emerge from the darkness. It took several listens for me to grasp the record’s understated brilliance, the things that seem normal until you start to pay closer attention. Undercurrent is a pithy, tasteful work by a mature songwriter exploring the introspective corners of her complex and singular artistic voice. Sarah Jarosz keeps getting better.