By Jon Stone
As many of us gather together our favorite records of the year I can't help but always feel a bit of a creeping skepticism for the lists that will eventually start to emerge. There are always one or two records that show up in everybody's top ten that I just don't get. It's not that I believe that these bands aren't good or that that their work isn't, like, totally innovative and (Merriweather) post(Pavillion)-modern, I just don't understand how something with such "universal" (or so it would seem) appeal is somehow lost on me. Then there are others, like last year's Punch Brothers record, that seem both innovative and progressive, but also utterly virtuosic and capital-M musical, that barely make a blip on the year-end lists. Sigh. That said, I’m really hoping that Sarah Jarosz’s debut Song Up In Her Head gets more than just a passing fancy.
Jarosz operates in the sonic borderlands between bluegrass, folk, roots, and pop -- a space that continues to defy a satisfactory genre designation. When her record was released back in June, that passing fancy was granted, largely due to Jarosz's cover of the Decemberists' Shankill Butchers. But there is much more happening on Song Up In Her Head. Its ethos as a serious first effort is supported by the staggering list of collaborators on the record: Jerry Douglas, Mike Marshall, Tim O'Brien, Sarah Siskind (of frequent Bon Iver covered fame), Chris Thile, and Abigail Washburn, just to name a few. As her website puts it: "These are not trifling musicians. They are the cream of the post-'grass movement (or whatever it is to be called) much afoot today, and their presence in Jarosz's debut is far from simple courtesy; it is a celebration." And surely, as a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, banjo, mandolin) and songwriter, Sarah is right there in their midst, holding her own.
Astonishingly, Sarah was only 18 when this record came out and her youth imbues the record with a certain untarnished honesty and innocence uncharacteristic of what we normally associate with roots and bluegrass music. Song Up In Her Head captures the perspective of someone who has a very clear sense of adult life at its genesis. Indeed, everything -- love, life, success, failure -- begins now. That moment is one of both fear and hopeful excitement and Jarosz understands it as only someone who is in the midst of it can. More importantly, she sings about that moment in way that makes me remember and long to have that moment back for myself.
Here's Sarah playing my favorite song on the record, Edge Of A Dream, which is also the one that best sums up what I've been talking about. From the Music Fog tour bus in Nashville (9/21/09):
Buy: Sarah Jarosz - Song Up In Her Head