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I'm with Her: See You Around
by George Graham
(Rounder Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/14/2018)
With something of an uptick in interest in folk music influence thanks to groups like Mumford and Sons, more artists of different generations seem to be taking up the mantle of acoustic folk, not only as individual performers, but with groups forming as in the old days, emphasizing vocal harmonies. Last week, we featured an exceptionally fine up-and-coming group Darlingside, who epitomized the sound with a quartet of guys doing dense four-part harmonies. This week we have another ensemble, this time of three women also with notable vocal blending, with a largely acoustic setting. In this case, it’s three artists who have their own respective careers as singer-songwriters, all of whom have won Grammy Awards for their previous projects. They began performing together and formed an ongoing project they call I’m With Her. They are Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins. Their debut release as a trio is called See You Around.
For those with long memories, I’m With Her is a kind of contemporary analog of Crosby, Stills and Nash, who had individual careers as songwriters, and began collaborating as a trio, finding that their vocals were particularly compatible. I’m With Her’s members are similar in a way. Texas-born Sarah Jarosz was a kind of musical prodigy, landing a contract with the then-bluegrass oriented label Sugar Hill Records when she was still in high school in 2009. She would take time off from her musical career to stay in school. She graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 2013 with a degree in “contemporary improvisation.” Her recording career put her in contact with several luminaries in acoustic music like Jerry Douglas, Chris Thile and Stuart Duncan. Her 2016 album, Undercurrent won two Grammy Awards, for best folk album and best American Roots performance.
Aoife O’Donovan grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and spent her summers in Ireland with her family. Her interest in folk music came from the 1960s figures like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. She also studied at the New England Conservatory of music, though she graduated ten years before Sarah Jarosz. Ms. O’Donovan was one of the founders of the creative and eclectic acoustic band Crooked Still, which started in 2001. Her songwriting came to the attention of Alison Krauss, who recorded one of her compositions. Ms. O’Donovan became a semi-regular on Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion, and was also guest vocalist on album Goat Rodeo Sessions, with cellist YoYo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer and the aforementioned Chris Thile. That album also won a Grammy Award in 2013.
California native Sara Watkins was a founding member of the bluegrass band Nickel Creek, also including Chris Thile, which formed in 1989 when Ms. Watkins was just 8 years old. Nickel Creek also won Grammy Awards, three for their 2005 album Why Should the Fire Die.
In 2014, Jarosz, O’Donovan and Watkins played as an impromptu trio at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and have been collaborating and performing together on and off since then, calling themselves I’m With Her. After several memorable Public Radio performances and touring over the past three years or so, they have finally collaborated on their own album as a trio
See You Around consists of original songs, all but one jointly composed by the trio, in an acoustic setting that is beautifully recorded with just the three of them, playing all together in the same room, with a just a bit of occasional instrumental help from producer Ethan Johns, recording in, of all places, Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio in England. Most of the instrumentation is played by the trio live in the studio.
Unlike the dense harmonies of Darlingside whom we featured last week, the songs on I’m With Her’s album tend to feature a lead vocalist, with the harmonies for emphasis. The three women all have light airy vocals and their voices blend in an almost ethereal way, but interestingly, the recording does not add any significant ambiance or reverb so the trio sound as if they are right in front of you. Most of the lyrics are kind of allegorical love songs, with various facets of relationships explored.
Leading off is the title track, See You Around, a kind of folky but contemplative love song. There is a little subtle electric guitar. <<>>
Game to Lose is somewhat similar in direction lyrically, though the musical arrangement is a bit more eclectic. <<>>
One of the more interesting tracks lyrically is Pangaea, which is a kind of mixture of an apocalyptic vision with a love song. The track also include some sonic effects that are largely absent from most of the rest of the album. Their sparing use makes them more effective. <<>>
With a more nostalgic style is the song Wild One, whose lyrics are a somewhat cryptic warning against “crossing over.”
There is one instrumental on the album called Waitsfield, a whimsical old-timey-sounding fiddle tune. <<>>
With some old-fashioned styles lyrics is the song Ryland (Under the Apple Tree), with a somewhat more contemplative musical setting featuring electric guitars. <<>>
Overland is a song about migration, in this case from Chicago to San Francisco, but it’s given a kind of old-timey sound and very nicely done. <<>>
The album ends with its one non-original song, a previously un-recorded composition by Gillian Welch which starts a cappella <<>> before the melancholy-sounding instrumentation, with a harmonium, fiddle and banjo make their appearance. <<>>
See You Around the debut release by the trio known as I’m With Her, with Sarah Jarosz, Aiofe O’Dono0van and Sara Watkins is a delightful album of three beautiful voices performing appealing original songs. For those of us who have heard their performances together on Public Radio over the last couple of years, it’s great news that have finally recorded as I’m With Her, and it’s interesting how much the three have subsumed themselves into the group, with the original compositions all being jointly written by the three. Their performances are outstanding and intimate. The recording is excellent, capturing the trio as they performed in real time together gathered around the microphones.
We’ll give the album a rare grade A for sound quality. The recording is warm, clean and unadulterated. There are a few effects on some of the instrumentation, but it’s tasteful. The trio’s voices are generally pristine in the recording, and the dynamic range actually captures the ebb and flow of the performance, with very little volume compression.
This is getting to be a good time for those who like folky vocal harmonies. I’m With Her’s new release See You Around is about as good as you can get.
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