Celebrated bluegrass stars Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz first joined forces as a trio in 2014 and, having dabbled with some singles and live appearances in the last couple of years, they’re now releasing their debut album ‘See You Around’. As individual live performers each has a formidable reputation, so catching them as a band on their current tour is surely a must (they’re back in the UK in May if you missed their recent London show). Given Jarosz’s modest collection of Grammy awards and the lauded, long-established band and solo careers of O’Donovan and Watkins (of Crooked Still and Nickel Creek fame, respectively) it’s little wonder that this release carries with it the weight of high expectation.
Existing fans of all three artists will not be disappointed as this record continues to mine the rich seam of progressive bluegrass for which the ladies are already well-known. The uninitiated may be surprised to find that these songs have much more to them than just close harmony and acoustic loveliness - there’s a depth to the material and an interesting approach to the arrangements that rewards repeat listening.
The blend of voices works well: the brittle emotion of Watkins is balanced by the purity of O’Donovan and both are glued together by Jarosz’s deeper alto. The ladies do not lean on this mix as heavily as you might expect; the three distinct voices are allowed their own spaces in the songs too, with each singer often taking a turn at lead passages. From an instrumental perspective, the trio are also very well-matched: Jarosz’s banjo duels with Watkins’ fiddle and, this time, the glue holding things tight is O’Donovan’s guitar.
Opener ‘See You Around’ is something of a timid start but ‘Game To Lose’ really ups the ante, fluctuating between unusual snatches of bird-like three-part harmony; full-on swagger and stomp; and a lyrical fiddle line. These three ideas are mashed together before the song comes to an abrupt stop - a little piece of genius. I often use words like spare and stark to describe such slight, percussionless arrangements as these but some of the tunes here are frankly underfed. The haunting ‘Pangea’ is an example - it’s a song that sounds as if it’s been hollowed out, allowing the loneliness of the sentiment to echo eerily around its exposed bones. It’s certainly got far more to offer than the strumalong folkiness of ‘Ain’t That Fine’ which comes before it.
The psychedelic fuzz of the spacey ‘I-89’ isn’t my cup of tea but the yearnsome ‘Wild One’ is a thing of particular beauty, gently dusted with mandolin and drunken violin. The inevitable instrumental workout comes in the form of ‘Waitsfield’ which is good fun and reminded me of The Waybacks. After all that energy, the lazy waltz and clean guitar of ‘Ryland’ is most welcome and we’re ready for ‘Overland’ - a tale of travel and struggle. I can well imagine this getting all epic in the hands of the Dixie Chicks but I’m With Her aren’t tempted; they keep it brief and the song is all the better for it. The same is true of ‘Crescent City’, another wonderfully understated, underdressed vignette.
The album wraps up with the pairing of ‘Close It Down’ - its sad narrative appropriately divided by passages of that drunken fiddle again - and the more hopeful ‘Hundred Miles’, written by Gillian Welch. After starting a capella, with voices entering one after the other: first solo, then unison then glorious harmony in turn, the instruments are ushered in ever-so-gently before the song waves another quick farewell. The lack of reverb puts you right in the room, which is of course how the whole record was made; with all three artists playing and singing live, just a few feet apart in the studio.
I confess it’s taken me a while to come round to this record. I guess I was looking for something that would sound serious but sweet; something that wouldn’t require me to listen too hard. What I got was something more immersive. See You Around is a record that is serious, sweet and fragile but never for its own sake. Its delicate beauty is rationed but, for that, it is all the more rewarding. I had to give it some proper attention (something that so many of us struggle with in this oh-so-distracting modern world) but once I put myself right in the middle of things it made complete sense.
It’s remarkable that three artists with so much to brag about have made such a humble-sounding collection of songs but this album’s deceptively understated sound masks a mastery of the members’ individual skills and the restraint just leaves you wanting more. Now, when were those tour dates again…?
Review by Rich Barnard.