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Follow the Bouncing Ball

September 27, 2013

Review: Sarah Jarosz, Build me up from Bones

Okay, maybe not so much a review as a crazy fan girl gushing.

A number of years ago I heard a girl on the radio whose voice made be drop what I was doing and just listen. Her name was Sarah Jarosz. Here she is at age 12 – the age AJ is now – singing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from his opera Porgy and Bess:

Let me reiterate: she is 12. She’s playing with a bunch of other talented kids and their teacher at a mandolin symposium. I love this video for a million reasons. Because she looks like a normal, goofy 12-year-old. Because she is remarkable (the whole group is, actually. Those other two boys to her left are both pro mando players too. Jacob Henry Jolliff on the far left plays with Joy Kills Sorrow. Jarrod Walker, to Sarah’s immediate right, plays with Missy Raines jazz/bluegrass band The New Hip. Want to see what they can do? Here’s another tune from the same symposium that features them: Because every kid is smiling — grinning even — with pure joy. Because when Sarah plays, she hunches over her instrument like she’s trying to swallow it whole. I can’t get the scene out of my head.

I’ve been listening to Sarah for a while now. I have all of her albums. It’s not just that each one gets better and better, but that she grows with each one. It’s like listening to a child grow up.

Her last album – her second – -was released a little over two years ago when she was 19. It was around the time I was applying for the job I have now and I walked around a lot with headphones on, trying to get my head around what was going on and listening to this:

In case you’re puzzled by her instrument, it’s an octave mandolin (also called a mandola or a mandocello) and I covet it. It’s tuned like a violin/mandolin, but an octave lower and has much more resonance. I love the sound. This song was my game face song, the one I played when I needed courage or to pull myself together. I listened to the album over and over again.

So I’ve been anxiously awaiting her latest, released just a few months after she graduated from New England Conservatory. You always worry when you’re waiting for a new book or recording. They rarely live up to your expectations. But Jarosz’s third release, Build Me Up from Bones, more than delivered. I’ve been listening to it pretty much non-stop since it was released on Tuesday and I’ve been talking it up to anyone who will listen and foisting tracks off on my coworkers. And now it’s your turn. Paste Magazine is currently streaming the album for free, although I’m not sure how much longer that will last. For the moment, anyway, you can listen here. Better yet, buy your own copy. You won’t be sorry.

Build Me Up From Bones draws on a variety of styles, from traditional to Newgrass to jazz and indie rock. Somehow it does this in a completely natural manner – it all fits together beautifully, while defining the individual style of Jarosz and her trio, which also includes Alex Hargreaves on fiddle and Nathanial Smith on cello, who are no slouches either.

A few general observations before launching into a blow by blow.

• Covers. Bluegrass poses some interesting issues for cover songs – there are two here. It’s a tradition built on old tunes, so in some ways covering is built into the genre (“Old Cluck Hen,” the second track from the Mandolin Symposium way up at the top of this post, is one such tune). But outside that most of the covers that involve taking songs outside bluegrass into the style are done for virtuosic and/or comic effect. I’m thinking of bands like The Meat Purveyers and their “Madonna Trilogy.” Recordings of this are hard to find, but here’s a video of the Meat Purveyers so you can at least get a sense of their sound and freneticism. As one of the commenters on this video says, “just plain badass.” An excerpt from “Lucky Star” appears around the 4 minute mark.

• Lyrics. Jarosz’s lyrics draw on bluegrass tropes and connect her to bluegrass’ past even as she takes steps away from it. But as a result, the are the least interesting part of the show, but it really doesn’t matter, because the rest is so incredibly interesting.

• Melody. Jarosz’s melodic structures vary from song to song, which is one of the things that keeps me coming back for mom. Lots of them use irregular phrase lengths which keep things interesting.

• Harmony. Similarly, the harmonies are varied – she takes different approaches in different songs and seems influence more on this album than in the past by jazz.


1. Over the Edge. This is the single released ahead of the album. I like it. It grabs you and drags you into the album. It fits squarely into a style often called “Newgrass” — more rock and roll than traditional.

2. Fuel the Fire. Here’s some classic bluegrass sound, but written by Sarah.
Here she is performing it at her senior recital from New England Conservatory. Sarah’s on banjo and vocals.

3. Mile on the Moon. I can’t find this one online (other than at the Paste link above to the whole album), which is too bad, because it’s one of my favorite arrangements, with an accordion is used like pedal steel. Who knew accordion could be subtle? The link is a different version without the accordion, but still a beautiful song, verging more into country.

4. Build Me Up from Bones. The title track reminds me very much of an Alison Krauss song in structure of the melody and phrasing. It’s a beautiful tune that suits Sarah’s voice. The reviewer for No Depression reviewer compared the lyrics of this song to those of “Song Up in Her Head,” the title track off her first album (2009), made when she was all of 17 years old as a way of showing that’s she’s coming of age.

Here’s “Song Up in Her Head”

And here’s “Build Me Up from Bones”

Sarah’s on octave mando in both.

And, for comparison, here’s Alison Krauss singing “Stay”

5. Dark Road. I find I have less to say about this track. I don’t want to dismiss it as filler – it’s solid songwriting and very Jarosz (although something reminds me vaguely of early Suzanne Vega). But this one jumps out at me less than the others. Apparently online fans felt the same way – I can’t find it as a single video, but it’s part of the Paste stream.

6. Simple Twist of Fate. Dylan Cover. Jarosz does some fantastic covers, often stepping into some pretty big shoes and somehow making the songs very much her own. She’s included a couple of covers on each of her albums. On her last album, she covered Radiohead’s The Tourist and Bob Dylan’s Ring them Bells,.

Here she tackles another Dylan tune, “A Simple Twist of Fate.” Here’s the Dylan original:

Here’s Sarah’s version:

7. 1000 things. I like this one for its 6/8 time, which reminds me of English/Appalachian folk song. I especially love the bridge which takes you somewhere new. She cowrote this one with singer-songwriter Darrell Scott. Sarah’s on guitar in this track.

8. Gone too soon. More solid songwriting, but like Dark Road, I don’t have anything specific to say about this and like Dark Road, it doesn’t seem to exist as a solo track.

9. Anything Else. Jazz influences. This is probably my favorite track on the album. I especially like the jazz-influenced harmonies. This one also doesn’t seem to be available by itself, but do go listen to it at Paste.

10. Book of Right-On. I like most of her covers, but this one of a Joanna Newsom song is my hands-down favorite, in part because it shows a side of her voice that I haven’t heard before — a dramatic flair and sense of humor. Her performance is spot on. Like all her covers, it sounds like she owns it and makes you hear the song a little differently. As one of my coworkers, a Newsom fan, pointed out, you can hear the song when Newsom’s voice doesn’t get in the way. And it’s funny.

Here’s Newsom’s version:

And here’s Sarah’s version (on mando):

Notice the arrangement, which has all three instruments plucking sometimes. Violin and mandolin are tuned exactly the same, but have different sonorities. Having the fiddle pluck makes for some interesting timbre. The variation the bows add gives it an almost orchestral depth. Brilliant.

11. Rearrange the Art. I’m also not finding a recording of the last track, but it’s a perfect ending to the song, pulling together the diverse threads that weave through the album, and opening up new possibilities to come.

I missed Sarah last weekend at the Brooklyn Bluegrass Bash, where she was sharing the stage with Chris Thile and Noam Pikleny of the Punch Bros, among others. I was on kid duty and the kid is not a bluegrass fan and I don’t think banjos should be inflicted on anyone who doesn’t want to hear them. But she’s living in Brooklyn now, so I hope a live performance is not too far away. And maybe, if we’re lucky, another album. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2013 12:01 pm

    Amazing. And bonus for me, now I know what’ I’m getting my mandolin-playing & loving son for Christmas. Wowzers!

  2. drgeek permalink
    October 9, 2013 3:14 pm

    I’ve been listening to Build Me Up From Bones on Spotify. As compelling as the originals are, I find myself most drawn to the cover of Dylan’s “A Simple Twist of Fate”. The arrangement of voice over pizzicato cello is marvelously spare, and the way that she maneuvers the vocal around the beat sounds jazz inspired … and positively beautiful to my ear.
    The rest of the songs will take more time for me to digest I think, in part because I think her song writing is growing by leaps and bounds.
    I also have to applaud whoever did the production because it doesn’t sound volume compressed like so many of the albums that come out these days.

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