The playing can be austere and the singing plain, but there is always something strange and wonderful going on.
The Sarah Jarosz on her latest record, Build Me Up From Bones, is a romantic and a realist. She sincerely expresses her desire for true love one minute and then conceals the details of her deeper thoughts the next. Jarosz writes, sings, and plays mostly acoustic, traditional-sounding, old-time country and futuristic way-out-there compositions that are almost impossible to define because of their weirdness. She’ll tell you an emotional truth in all its nakedness and then conceal the concrete details of her situation.
You might say she’s a dualist, but that’s not the point. Jarosz makes music that ranges all over the spectrum, but puts her own imprint on it through her distinctive style. You can easily identify her music by her unique instrumental delivery and vocal intonations. It is difficult to describe her music because the very qualities that define it make her seem simple. The playing can be austere and the singing plain, but there is always something strange and wonderful going on. Subtlety is her strong point.
Jarosz does not have a conventionally beautiful voice. She can be monotonal and slow. Unlike most singers, she does not generally raise or lower the volume or pitch for effect. Jarosz emphasizes the phrasing of her lyrics and relies on the silence to let her mandolin (and her accompanists on various string instruments) speak. For example, on the gloriously gorgeous title tune, Jarosz sings of “the love I’ve always known” in a relatively unadorned fashion. But then she stops singing, starts to coo, and lets the fiddle soar in a beautiful riff to articulate the sweetness.
The album is somewhat divided between songs that follow the normal structural patterns and those that do not follow conventional narrative and chord progressions. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to say that they range in style somewhere between the two extremes found in the two songs she covers: Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” and Joanna Newsom's "Book of Right-On". Dylan fans may not appreciate Jarosz’s rendition as she explores the darker side of the story about a man who found the dead love inside him during a one-night stand to discover how lonely and empty his life really was. She captures the sadness of the situation so that her main accompaniment on the song, cellist Nathaniel Smith’s plucking, resembles a tourniquet or even a noose more than any simple twist. But Dylan’s song does have a beginning, middle, and end. The narrator may be lost, but the song goes somewhere.
That’s not true of harpist Newsom’s "Book of Right-On" that goes in circles which never close and whose lyrics make more associative sense than straight storytelling. Jarosz turns the tale into a joyful excursion into a happier land where there is hope and maybe even something magical in the ordinary. Her performance endows the tune with the spirit of adventure.
Jarosz’s original material is often poetic and sui generis. She knows we cover up our desires with pride, wild things grow beneath the shadows, and the moon is just a fingernail scratching the back of the night. She doesn’t know if anyone is listening, but she can’t help but hang out the truth in the air. It’s a wild ride despite its generally non-electric trappings.