Follow Me Down shares many of the virtues of singer/mandolinist/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz’s breathtaking debut, Song Up In Her Head, most notably the wise-beyond-her-years voice, crack instrumental support, and introspective, at times haunting songwriting. Having Béla Fleck and Casey Driessen solo on her “Come Around” is something most young musicians (and elderly ones too) would give their thumb picks, if not thumbs, for. How about Chris Thile and the entire Punch Brothers backing her on Radiohead’s “The Tourist?” Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Shawn Colvin, Darrel Scott, Dan Tyminski, Mark Schatz, and Viktor Krauss are some of the other players and singers happy to help Ms. Jarosz get her musical points across on nine originals and two covers.
Jarosz’s pair of original instrumentals, one burning (“Old Smitty”), the other gentle (the aptly titled “Peace”), confirm that she is a musical force with or without words. She is adept at converting covers to her own style without submitting them to such complete overhauls as to become unrecognizable. Tom Waits’ “Come On Up” is one example from her debut, while Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” is given a sweet, lilting treatment on the new album. The Radiohead tune is less successful, and suggests why Follow Me Down rates a notch below her debut.
The record is too good to be seen as a sophomore slump. Still, comparing them, Follow Me Down has fewer striking melodies (“Edge Of A Dream” from her debut is an example from the first album unmatched this time out), while Jarosz’s delivery at times has a slightly self-conscious twinge, a bit too navel-gazing. “My Muse” is a track that is packed with both hushed beauty and hypnotic tension yet touched by the too-precious.
The Radiohead tune is a dirge that is innovative and distinctive, but may try too hard for an impact that, at least for this listener, is never quite achieved, and this with the awesome force of the Punch Brothers on board. The commitment is there, the performances impassioned, but it ends up easier to admire than to love. Compared to her debut, that is true for much of the disc.
But blame her for being so good that she’s already competing with herself. Deep into the career Jarosz is likely heading into, this will be seen as her early period. She already has much to live up to. (Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 120897, Nashville, TN 37212, www.sugarhillrecords.com.) DR