Sarah Jarosz began her musical career as a child and has been celebrated ever since for her precociousness, talent as a singer, and skill as a mandolin and banjo player. On her first three albums, she did killer versions of songs by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Thom Yorke, and even Edgar Allan Poe. She also composed some musically complex and emotionally wrought tracks. Jarosz wrote or co-wrote all the tracks on her latest disc, Undercurrent, on which she captures the mysteries of life: the magical quality of light, the thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere, the feelings we didn’t know we had, and the very existence of music, with gusto and intelligence. There’s nothing understated about Undercurrent. It positively shines.
Not only is Jarosz an observer, she also confidently sings that she can make the world better through her songs, and her evidence is overwhelming. She possesses a warm voice that drawls out the vowel sounds to stress the importance and emotional resonance of the stories she tells. The results mesmerize. By hanging on to the vowels, she creates a world thick with meaning. The atmospherics are rich; even when she just sings the mundane language of ordinary conversations, her words suggest much more is meant than is said.
Because of Jarosz’ gifts as an instrumentalist, it is easy to overlook her songwriting and vocal abilities. Fortunately, Undercurrent demonstrates all of Jarosz’ strengths. This can be heard in the four-song cycle (consisting of “Early Morning Light”, “Everything to Hide”, “Take Another Turn”, and “Jacqueline”) that forms the spiritual core of the album. The songs stand out because they are all performed solo. “Early Morning Light” opens the disc with Jarosz grumpily complaining about troubles before declaring that she will make things better by moving on.
A few songs later, she sings about forbidden feelings: having everything to hide still means one has everything, and the song glimmers with glee. She then discusses what words such as “lost”, “lonely”, “hungry”, and “sorry” mean. The song’s title, “Take Another Turn”, suggests that she has not given up on love.
The album ends with “Jacqueline,” which finds her reflecting at the waters of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park. Jarosz grew up in Texas but is now a New Yorker. When she performed this song to a hometown crowd in Austin during this year’s South by Southwest, Jarosz explained that the reservoir is the place she goes to find peace. She communes with the former First Lady as a way of examining her personal thoughts and feelings. The song offers the hope that only the dead can provide, that there is still hope for the living.
The disc also contains several collaborations with a variety of talents, including Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins and Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan (with whom Jarosz has performed as part of the trio I’m With Her), the Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan, and Oklahoma’s Parker Milsap. Jarosz and Milsap form a wonderful paring, as he picks up the pace and makes her rock, even if acoustically. She even starts to howl before the song is over. Milsap’s voice and guitar are in the background, providing a driving wheel to the proceedings.
It’s also clear that Jarosz is having a good time here. She may be pondering the heavy questions, but she evidently takes great joy from her talents. There’s a looseness to the album that prevents her from ever being pretentious. She just looks at the world around her, the people she knows, her thoughts and feelings, and turns these into song.