The curious photograph in the artwork of Sara Jarosz’s fine new album, Undercurrent, would almost seem a contradiction at first. Open the CD jacket, and there sits a photograph of the Central Park reservoir, an expanse of serenity in an unwieldy metropolis. But in a way, the shot mirrors at least some of the intent fueling the album’s 11 songs. The product of Jarosz’s recent move to New York, the tunes are largely folkish miniatures — stories of intimacy and conversational reflection performed with refreshingly understated candor. They might be products of big-city experience, but they sound like stories shared in a parlor.
The mood of Undercurrent is framed by the two songs that bookend the album beautifully. The first, Early Morning Light, is a portrait of romantic aftermath sung with no accompaniment other than Jarosz’s acoustic guitar. It’s a stark coming-to-terms tale that approaches its sense of loss with wistful expectation (“All my troubles just begun, you and me, the troubled ones”), even though the inevitable breakup is no less traumatic. In contrast is Jacqueline, which also is sung solo but with electric guitar as the lone orchestration. The despondency is just as profound, even as Jarosz seeks to summon an era-defining spirit for solace (“I cried my tears and they fell on down into your dark and misty blue”). Both songs bluntly define their sense of sadness, seek different forms of comfort and employ varying shades of stark musicality for expression.
It should also be noted that in an album full of collaborative songwriting — Parker Milsap, Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan and Americana priestess Aoife O’Donovan help out — Early Morning Light and Jacqueline were penned by Jarosz alone.
What sits between the songs is splendid, too. Far lighter in tone and intent is Green Lights. Co-written by Luke Reynolds of Guster, the music is more atmospheric, with a smidge of reverb accenting Jarosz’s singing to make it more modestly fanciful. The song doesn’t dispense with grimness, but its intrusion is more worldly than personal. Perhaps the misery-loves-company approach keeps the heavier demons at bay. It certainly seems that way as Green Lights’ more dream-like disposition unfolds (“The song in my head keeps me marching on”).
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There are also twists down other paths, as in House of Mercy, a Julie Miller-style blast of antique spiritualism with an incantatory feel, and the accusatory Lost Dog, whose shattered sentiments are reflected in the brittle strains of banjo Jarosz colors the tune with. Collectively, such scrapbook reveries add up to a beautifully unadorned folk attitude, one with an uneasy grace that fuels Undercurrent’s quiet but beautiful urgency.
(Sarah Jarosz performs at 3 p.m. July 16 at the Forecastle Festival at Waterfront Park in Louisville. See more on Forecastle in Friday's Weekender section and on LexGo.com.)