Album Review: Sarah Jarosz — Build Me Up from Bones
If you close your eyes when you put the needle down on Sarah Jarosz’s third album, you’ll swear you’re listening to Joni Mitchell–especially her Hejira album, one moment–Diana Krall’s smoky and seductive voice at another moment, or Maria Muldaur’s sultry, languorous vocals in the next moment. Yet, it’s Mitchell that Jarosz most resembles in her complex songwriting, as well as in her deft arrangements in which cello, violin, mandolin, dobro, guitar, steel guitar, and banjo circle and spin intricate webs around each other and her vocals. Violinist Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathaniel Smith join Jarosz to create a multilayered sound that’s densely textured and that crosses the boundaries of many genres only to illustrate their similarities. She wrote or co-wrote nine of the eleven songs on the album—Jarosz interprets Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” and Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right-On” in dead-on yet strikingly fresh ways—and she is joined by an all-star cast of musicians including Dan Dugmore, Jerry Douglas, Darrell Scott, Chris Thile, Viktor Krauss, Jedd Hughes, and Aiofe O’Donovan.
O’Donovan provides crystal clear harmony vocals to the title track, a folk song that resembles the best of Fairport Convention or the Indigo Girls; much as the singer pleads for her lover to build her up from the bones, Jarosz sparely builds the music up from the bones of guitar, mandolin, and her voice and adds skin to the skeleton with violins and O’Donovan’s shimmering harmonies. Dugmore’s lap steel and Hughes’ thrumming guitar propel the urgent, driving, “Over the Edge,” as the singer “flips the switch [to] turn the night on…turns the key and lights the highway.” Banjo and fiddle kick out the bluegrass jams on “Fuel the Fire,” building on a riff right out of Doc Watson’s “Shady Grove,” as the singer contemplates loss and the vision that it takes to see the emptiness of desire and to rekindle it. On the smoky, cabaret song, “Anything Else,” Jarosz’s wistful vocals channel Maria Muldaur, and in the poignant love song, “Gone Too Soon,” Douglas’s dobro and Scott’s guitar, as well as Kate Rusby’s harmony vocals, build a haunting counterpoint to Jarosz’s voice as she explores the ache of love and loss: “Here we are, close again/our hearts beat for each other/what I’d give, just to hold you/right here forever.” On the Celtic-inflected “1,000 Things” Hargreaves’ violin and Smith’s plucked cello capture the mystical, almost fairy-tale-like or nursery rhyme character of this driving ballad. Smith’s gracefully plucked cello gives Jarosz’s version of Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” a sparseness and space that allows Jarosz’s voice room to breathe and move while at the same time capturing the capaciousness of Dylan’s tumbling lyrics.
Much like Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” Jarosz’s “Dark Road” grows more complex with each verse as the singer probes the nature of life and the paths on which we find ourselves: “The darkness covers me sometimes/and the road is long/but it always unwinds/and I find if you take your time/you will make it fine.” Like Mitchell’s song, too, Jarosz’s arrangements deftly builds layer upon layer of instrumentation, with Douglas’ dobro threading under Scott’s electric guitar.
You’ll want to listen to every song on Jarosz’s album over and over again, for on every listen you’ll hear new phrasings, new combinations of notes, a chord you’d missed before that holds together a bridge, and lyrics that reveal multiple levels of meaning. Jarosz has indeed taken her time to get here, and she’s making it fine. Build me up from the bones, indeed.
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