No one should be surprised that acoustic multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz can pick clean and fast. Jarosz’s first album showcased her ability to take on folk, country, and bluegrass music head on as well as cover rock songs with creative gusto. Jarosz does the same on her latest album, but she has expanded her musical palette and does much more. Follow Me Down, which will be released shortly before her 20th birthday, reveals Jarosz’ considerable growth as singer, songwriter, and player. Her talent at performing everything from slow airs to somewhat avant-garde compositions while keeping the music consistently interesting suggests she is wise beyond her years.
Take, for example, the self-penned instrumental “Peace”. She plays gentle ripples of mandolin notes, letting the instrument’s voice soothingly express the melody over a layer of soft atmospherics provided by Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Edgar Meyer (Arco bass). Meanwhile, Seamus Egan responds on wooden flute, and the music sounds as calm and natural as a babbling brook on a breezy spring day with a bird chirping from a nearby branch. This is “The Peace of Wild Things”, as Wendell Berry says.
Or there’s her version of Radiohead’s “The Tourist”, with its languid pacing and chorus of “Hey man, slow down, slow down / Idiot, slow down, slow down”. In lesser hands, this could be a dirge, but Jarosz (with the help of the Punch Brothers) turns this howl into something that progresses with hidden energies. One feels the speed of “traveling a thousand feet per second” while being locked in a mode of transport. One does not move under one’s own power, but one is nomadic nonetheless. The pleasant and unpleasant sensations merge into an awareness of how strange and alienating modern life can be.
Oh, Jarosz shows she can still play the fast numbers, as the other instrumental tune “Old Smitty” demonstrates, or on tracks like “Come Around” that feature that no-no of purist traditional music — drums. But it is this very variety that makes this album so damn interesting. On “My Muse”, Jarosz even plays the electric guitar, toy piano, and Wurlitzer organ as well as singing and strumming the mandolin, conveying the rich variety of her inspirations. It’s a tour de force that suggests there is probably nothing Jarosz won’t try as she discovers more about the world in which she lives and that which lives inside of her.
Jarosz performs on a variety of instruments, including the 5-string banjo, clawhammer banjo, octave mandolin, and tenor guitar, in addition to the ones previously mentioned. She wrote eight songs, arranged one other (Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting poem “Annabelle Lee”), and does two covers. She’s joined by some of the most notable instrumentalists in acoustic music, such as Bela Fleck on banjo, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Chris Thile on mandolin. She also has some well-known country-folk singers backing up her vocals, including Darrell Scott, Dan Tyminiski, Shawn Colvin, and Vince Gill. No matter how talented her collaborators, Jarosz never feels the need to show off. She lets everyone contribute, so while the songs are almost all her own compositions, they bear the benefits of having the efforts of others.
The title Follow Me Down comes from the opening song where Jarosz summons the listener to “Run Away”. She swears that if we join her, we can set each other free. On the whole, the album lives up to this promising invitation.