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Sarah Jarosz

Undercurrent – 2016 (Sugar Hill)

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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CDs by Sarah Jarosz

No longer just a startlingly talented young bluegrass musician, on her latest, Sarah Jarosz shows her growth both as a person and an artist. This is her first recording done while she wasn't in either high school or college, the first since her move to New York City three years ago, and the first time she has included only new original material.

It may be the middle one of those firsts that had the most influence on the end results; there is little to no traditional bluegrass material here - no driving tempos, no breakdowns, no frenetic soloing and little in the way of mountain soul singing. What there is, however, covers a wider range of emotions and musical textures, leaning to the confessional, city-influenced folk pop of Joni Mitchell, Eva Cassidy or Ray LaMontagne.

Jarosz performs four songs completely solo; her voice stands apart on those with just a single stringed instrument as backing. Opening cut "Early Morning Light" employs this spare method, with Jarosz singing about how she'll "Move on down the track / and you won't see me looking back." Followed by the atmospheric dreamscape of "Green Lights," that could be a stark statement of purpose from a forward-looking artist unconcerned about genre distinctions.

"House of Mercy" is the centerpiece, a bluesy, spooky drone that splits the difference between Mary Gauthier and Jason Isbell while giving them both a run for their tone-rich money. Jarosz is not the most convincing blueswoman, however, having neither the age, the experience or the many pints of whiskey drunk to put more than an endearing growl in her voice.

The overall effect here is what's most striking, and relatable to the title. Like the early albums from Nanci Griffith or Alison Krauss, there is an undercurrent of foreboding, of an uneasy sadness throughout these songs that belies her position as the youthful darling of a close-knit music scene even as it blows those expectations wide open.