As a precocious 17 year old, Sarah Jarosz made a phenomenal first impression on Americana audiences with her debut, Song Up in Her Head, and her sophomore album, Follow Me Down, is an even more impressive and progressive set. Traditionalists may bristle at the notion that they’ve lost yet another promising young talent to a more contemporary sound, but Follow Me Down proves that Jarosz has an intuitive grasp of traditional folk and bluegrass structures and a taste for more adventurous, modern song choices and arrangements. She isn’t at the level of, say, the Punch Brothers (who guest on the album), but Jarosz is quickly emerging as one of the most exciting new acts in Americana.
Jarosz and co-producer Gary Paczosa use traditional acoustic instruments as the foundation for all of their arrangements, and Jarosz’s skills with the mandolin and banjo give “Annabelle Lee” and “Floating in the Balance” propulsive, rollicking rhythm sections. Lead single “Come Around” boasts some of the fast-picking instrumentation that is a hallmark of bluegrass music, but the song’s minor-key arrangement and the use of both a proper B section and refrain are more indicative of modern songwriting trends. Jarosz’s writing is forceful and pointed, with opener “Run Away” and the melancholy “My Muse” both demonstrating a real self-awareness and candid point of view.
Armed with her clear, powerful soprano and a sense of phrasing that splits the difference between Cia Cherryholmes and Rhonda Vincent, Jarosz is a compelling vocalist, tackling more traditional narratives such as “Here No There” with restraint and empathy while singing fearlessly on a pair of exceptional covers. Her take on Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” isn’t necessarily a huge stretch for an Americana singer, but the song is a spot-on choice for Jarosz, as it fits perfectly alongside some of her image-heavy writing. She’s joined by the Punch Brothers on her rendition of Radiohead’s “The Tourist.” What could have been a show-offy, novelty choice for a cover is instead a flawless reinterpretation of a difficult, heady meditation. It’s the highlight of an album characterized by carefully calculated risks, and as a result, Follow Me Down should only build on Jarosz’s already considerable reputation.