The most obvious angle at which to approach the debut of bluegrass artist Sarah Jarosz is her age, which is understandable: Song Up In Her Head was recorded when she was 17 (she turned 18 shortly before the album’s release date). That fact attracts a certain amount of interest, with words like prodigy and wunderkind getting tossed around at whim. But let’s address it quickly, and move on, as any illusions of awkward or precocious youth should be scrubbed away by the album’s first song. Song Up In Her Head would be an impressive, captivating debut for an artist of any age, and the rare undercooked lyric or syrupy passage is easily overshadowed by Jarosz’s commanding presence and the overwhelming amount of supporting talent assembled in the studio.
“Bluegrass” is a term to use lightly here. Although plenty traditional signifiers remain, from nimble, virtuosic mandolin and banjo to the purposeful lack of a drum kit, Jarosz’s songs don’t generally adhere to accepted tradition. Her choice of covers (Tom Waits’s “Come On Up to the House”, the Decemberists’ “Shankill Butchers”) belies a wide range of influences that are allowed to seep into her own craft, which is considerable. “Broussard’s Lament” is a pointed commentary on the lack of response to Hurricane Katrina, “They told me Thursday they would come / They told me Friday they would come / Saturday’s here and I’m trying to find my way home”, made more urgent by the sudden chord changes and a powerful yet nuanced vocal performance. “Edge of a Dream” contains its share of vague treacle (“Dancing on the edge of a dream”, “Singin’ ‘bout the passion in my soul”) but the melody and instrumentation are achingly beautiful.
Two instrumentals showcase Jarosz’s skill on mandolin (the sprightly, “Mansinneedof”) and clawhammer banjo (the mountain tune “Fischer Store Road”), proving along with her songwriting that she’s not just a pretty voice, although she’s got that going for her, too. Particularly on “Shankill Butchers”, Jarosz’s instincts as a singer elevate the song beyond its author’s original, stretching and inflecting each note for maximum dramatic effect. The excellent “Left Home” soars with unobtrusive, apt harmonies from Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Siskind (and Jerry Douglas’s legendary dobro), while “Tell Me True” smolders with Appalachian holler yearning, abetted by yet another star, Tim O’Brien harmonizing. What’s astounding about the whole production is that none of the cameos upstage Jarosz’s own tunes or sensibility. She’s given center spotlight as a peer, not a protégé, rightly would.
Not everything gels perfectly, and Song Up In Her Head does contain one or two superfluous songs. The piano ballad “Long Journey”, apart from featuring Jarosz’s playing on yet another instrument, is a bit maudlin both in lyric and arrangement, at least compared to the rest of the material. But truth be told, the balance is clearly tilted towards an exciting and sure-footed debut by a young artist already light-years beyond her years in terms of talent and potential. “The future now / Will soon be past” Jarosz may sing on the excellent title track, but let’s hope not too soon