Sarah Jarosz’ Song Up In Her Head was one of my favorite releases of 2009, a loose and inviting bluegrass record with surprisingly good musicianship, a few tasteful covers and the kind of earnest-but-good-hearted songwriting you would expect from a precocious musician still in high school when the album was being cut. Jarosz is 20 now, and while her followup highlights most of the qualities that distinguished her debut, it also shows an admirable eagerness to avoid being pigeonholed — even the title, Follow Me Down, seems like a mild challenge. So into what new territory, if any, is Sarah Jarosz leading us?
The leadoff track provides one answer. From the synth-like drone that opens the song, “Run Away” strives to present a more assured, polished and radio-friendly artist. It’s a straightforwardly moody acoustic folk number, and at first I was rather taken with its surprising falsetto bridge and by Jarosz’s guitar solo. But it grows hollow on repeated outings: the lyric is uninventive and seems — I hate saying this, but I thought it and I would be derelict in my duties as a reviewer if I didn’t mention it — to have been loosely inspired by the Twilight series, with its reference to “creatures of the night” and general air of adolescent pseudo-passion. It’s not a terrible song or anything; it’s just that in conception and range of feeling, it actually sounds less sophisticated than anything on her debut.
Skipping ahead a bit, we come to another moody acoustic folk number, one that begins with a taut, lonely-sounding arpeggio on mandolin, joined soon by Jarosz’s voice: “I spin around in your love/in a place of wonder/I want to wander.” “My Muse” is a love song to the creative spark, with a heartfelt melody alternately estranged and comforting. The arrangement is just right: strings rise up to lend a reassuring warmth to the choruses, but otherwise Jarosz keeps the instrumentation — which she largely plays herself — spare to allow the words to shine through. Like “Run Away,” this is quite a departure from the more conventional bluegrass and folk of her debut, but here every note rings true.
The album’s other standout curiosity is a cover of Radiohead’s “The Tourist,” served up here with a straight-ahead bluegrass treatment. Clearly, Jarosz has an ear for covers: in addition to “The Tourist,” this record includes a take on Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells,” while her previous disc included songs by the Decemberists and Tom Waits. “Ring Them Bells” is fine, an easygoing performance that recalls her similar take on “Come On Up to the House.” With “The Tourist,” however, she’s met her match. The acoustic arrangement works well, but Jarosz’s vocal is monotonous, and she turns the song into a slog, relieved only by some genuinely unhinged violin playing by Gabe Witcher over the coda.
Neither a sophomore slump nor a bold leap forward, Follow Me Down is something of a lateral move. In the end, what works best on this album is the same kind of thing that worked on the previous one: Jarosz firing up her mandolin fingers (and her guitar fingers and banjo fingers) and letting fly with some tried and true bluegrass goodness. After “My Muse,” the best track here is “Annabelle Lee,” an Edgar Allen Poe verse seamlessly transformed into an Appalachian-style mourning ballad. “Old Smitty” is a hotfooted jig that would give the titular character, assuming him to be real, a coronary should he ever try to keep pace with it. (If you haven’t caught on by now, Jarosz is a terrific instrumentalist, and easily holds her own against some very able helping hands.) By all means let Sarah Jarosz explore; this record shows she has the potential to grow into a challenging and well-rounded artist. Just so she doesn’t leave all the fun stuff behind in the process.