Classic Americana Albums: Sarah Jarosz “Undercurrent”

Sugar Hill Records 2016

There are plenty of reasons to describe ‘Undercurrent’ as a ‘Classic Americana Album’, but we might as well start with the official ones. In 2016, the album won two Grammys, one for ‘Best Folk Album’ and the other for one of its 11 tracks, ‘House of Mercy’, awarded the top spot in the ‘Best American Roots Performance’. ‘Undercurrent’ was also nominated in the ‘Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical’ category. But if the awards effectively constituted a resounding recognition by the music industry of her artistic ability, anybody listening to ‘Undercurrent’ will, in any case, instantly appreciate Jarosz’s huge talent for writing powerful, striking folk-roots music, with a vocal delivery which fuses passion and hugely accomplished technique.

But there’s more: it’s also a sign of how much of a musical journey the Texan singer-songwriter had already taken in the early years of her professional career that after signing her first record deal at 16, by the time it came to her fourth album when she was 25, ‘Undercurrent’ was widely viewed as containing something of a seachange in production style and arrangement. That shift is essentially Jarosz’s preference on the album for what she described as a less cluttered sound compared to the more lushly produced earlier albums. The obvious example of this is that for the first time in her career, on this album, Jarosz sings with no accompaniment apart from a single acoustic guitar, on no less than four tracks. At the same time, there was also a significant shift in the ‘raw materials’ too. After covering Dylan, Radiohead and Tom Waits on her first three albums, ‘Undercurrent’ consisted entirely of her own songs. (Just for the record, Jarosz has also recently done a stunning version of James McMurtry’s ‘Childish Things’ featuring some superb guitar work by current producer John Leventhal, though regrettably it’s not on an album – yet!)

Some elements didn’t change though, on what was also the first album she made when she was no longer studying at college or school. As has been the case on much of her work to date, ’Undercurrent’ positively bristles with notable co-writes and/or backing musicians. A duet with noted Australian guitarist Jedd Hughes, whose career includes spells with Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris, on ‘Take Me Back’, co-written with the Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan, is one of many high points in that regard.

Comparisons are often drawn between Jarosz and Gillian Welch, whom she often mentions as a singer she admires, for multiple good reasons. There’s a similar old-time clarity of tone in their singing styles for one thing, and for another similarly sharply drawn lyrics that draw heavily on grassroots and bluegrass folk traditions. (On ‘Undercurrent’, ‘House of Mercy’ is probably the best example of that.) Curiously enough, the two have a musical background that combines university studies with solid links to rural and small-town American life, in Jarosz’s case growing up in Wimberley in rural Texas before heading to study in New York.

But the differences are also there, too. While Welch possesses an uncanny knack for giving even the most worldly and hardscrabble of lyrics a sort of mystical edge of Old Testament bleakness, in ’Undercurrent’, at least, the mood isn’t as perma-frosty and austere as the world that some of Welch’s albums seem to inhabit. Maybe it’s the waves of sensual jazzy reverb that occasionally take over a song like ‘Green Lights’, maybe it’s the more personal touches on songs like ‘Jacqueline’, a study of the singer’s deep affection for the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reservoir in Central Park, but despite the characteristically ethereal tones that she uses to infuse life into the scaffolding of songs as open-ended as ‘Early Morning Light’, overall there’s a far less spooky sound than you sometimes get in Welch’s work.

So for all ‘Undercurrent’ marked a change of direction for Jarosz’s future work, it contains more than enough to keep us captivated in the here and now. There are songs of loss and rejection as powerful as ‘House of Mercy’, the track that netted Jarosz that Grammy, and others brimming with desire, like ‘Everything to Hide’ and ‘Still Life’. A personal favourite is ‘Lost Dog’, a heartwarmingly straightforward offer of compassion to somebody who has fallen by the wayside. But all of them are cohesive, elegant, seamlessly flowing pieces of music. It’s almost scary how despite her relatively short career at this point, in ‘Undercurrent’, Jarosz is seemingly incapable of taking a single misstep. But nobody’s complaining, either.

About Alasdair Fotheringham 63 Articles
Alasdair Fotheringham is a freelance journalist based in Spain, where he has lived since 1992, writing mainly on current affairs and sport.
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