Sarah Jarosz - Build Me Up From Bones
Label: Sugar Hill Records
Producer: Gary Pacsoza
Release Date: September 24th, 2013
The term “newgrass” always serves to invoke a chuckle when I get talking to folks about music. I often find myself trying to explain how Chris Thile has completely overhauled an American tradition by throwing every genre into a blender and filtering it through a Kentucky mandolin. But most times, people have already laughed off the moniker as a trend, imagining something as niche as progressive bluegrass to be a gimmick. Sarah Jarosz would have something to say about that.
Build Me Up From Bones is the third full-length issued from the ambitious Texan youngster. Jarosz is known for her mando mastery and old-style clawhammer banjo technique. Longtime collaborators Alex Hargreaves (violin) and Nathaniel Smith (cello) transition to the front seat for this country-road drive, but this record is prone to wander. Even Jarosz’s cover selections encapsulate the stylistic duality of newgrass: a Bob Dylan classic and a selection from freak-folk heroine Joanna Newsom. Traditional bluegrass roots and a youthful proclivity for experimentation showcase the rock ‘n roll attitude of her genre: nodding respectfully to grandpa, covering up the tattoos at family dinner.
Opener “Over the Edge” arrests you in an up-tempo, skewing bluegrass expectations with Texas-country electric guitar and an occasional stippling of delayed synthesizer beeps, peeking out of the chorus. “Fuel the Fire” maintains with a familiarly relentless banjo and the contrapuntal speckling of staccato mandolin riffs. “Mile on the Moon” begins to drag the pace with its accordion drone and becomes the exemplar for the vocal delivery on the album: Jarosz’s simultaneously arrow-precise and somehow lazy-sounding signature, underlain with male harmony that sits in the mix as a subtle complement.
The great cliché of the industry is that any artist’s third record “explores darker territories.” Junior releases are always downers, and Jarosz is no exception. “Lay me down beneath the shadows/meet me where the wild things grow/kick the moon and watch it shatter.”
Title track “Build Me Up from Bones” and successor “Dark Road” coincidentally embody the biggest flaw on the album: coming across like Jarosz is trying to prove that she’s grown up; darker. One can’t help but to remember that the songstress is 22 years old and probably hasn’t seen enough grit to be as sad as she seems to want you to think. However, where these two tracks fall short, “Gone Too Soon” bulls-eyes. The way that Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago,” was cut on the teeth of winter nights and crippling loneliness, this track’s drily acoustic production and despondent slide successfully convince us that Jarosz wrote whilst slowly drinking herself to sleep beneath dull snowfall on some vacant American night.
“Anything Else” had finally lulled me into thinking that nothing new would arise from the album’s texture, when suddenly the fiddle furiously whipped into a solo reminiscent of Andrew Bird. The lyrics are lackluster: “Take the fall/take it all/take everything,” but as they drift downward, back and forth, they become the aural equivalent of a feather falling in zig-zag, a melodic descent that nods to a swaying, Glen Hansard-ian heartbreak.
The covers are highlights. On “Simple Twist of Fate,” her bifurcated vocal style is seamless, alternately barking like Dylan and breaking into a pristine head-voice like Krauss without any disjointedness. “The Book of Right-On” is a perfect cover, maintaining the character with a completely original spin. The ludicrous lyrics, “I killed my dinner with karate/kick ‘em in the face” are delivered with perfect composure, and her less harsh timbre pushes Southward. The harmony between the pizzicato strings and twinkling mandolin make an excellent substitute for the harp. All is fittingly right-on.
“Rearrange the Art” closes without fanfare, a silhouette of the album’s melancholic character. The cello is a whale song and the Thile-esque secondary dominant chords keep the melody out of the realm of predictability. It is a picture of the chiaroscuro that the collective work carries: shadowy, but not without occasional illumine.
Looking across three album covers, you can see Jarosz coming of age. From a cartoon, to a cut-and-paste abstraction, to her simply dressed and smirking confidently past the lens, her growth is visually depicted. “Build Me Up From Bones” is doubtlessly a credit to the newgrass genre, but looking across her career, we find ourselves quietly wishing Sarah Jarosz not to grow up too fast.