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Sierra Hull: Weighted Mind
by George Graham
(Rounder Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/10/2016)
Like classical and jazz -- music forms on which instrumental virtuosity is prized -- bluegrass has brought forth a fair number of instrumental prodigies, musicians who create a sensation with their abilities at an early age. Among bluegrass’ prodigies of recent decades, who have become some of its more important figures on the scene are Bela Fleck, Alison Krauss, and Chis Thile, all of whom emerged in their early teens. All have gone on to leave their stylistic mark in a way that has moved the music along and been a big influence for others. Another name that had attracted attention in the bluegrass world at a young age is Sierra Hull, who has just released her first album in about five years called Weighted Mind.
Sierra Hull started playing the mandolin at age 8, and self-released her first album in 2002 at age 10. She was appearing at bluegrass festivals and was soon befriended by Alison Krauss, who helped to serve as a mentor. She played in bluegrass bands, mainly as an instrumentalist. But in 2008 released her first vocal album called Secrets, co-produced by Ms. Krauss and fellow Union Station member Ron Block. Ms Hull was just 15 when the album was recorded. It went to #2 on the bluegrass charts. Three years later, she released Daybreak, which also had the help of Alison Krauss & Union Station members, and it featured mostly original songs. It also did well in the bluegrass world. Ms. Hull continued to tour even while she attended the Berklee College of Music.
Ms. Hull, now in her early 20s, wanted to make another album, but, according to her liner notes in the new recording, was at something of a crossroads. She had done some of the record but was not very happy with the results. It was a larger-scale production, and she writes that she was even playing electric guitar. Then one time she and Bela Fleck met, and she asked him if he would want to produce her new record. Fleck, though impressed with her as an artist, was reluctant, since he had many other projects on his plate. But her music eventually convinced him, and he was sufficiently taken by the original songs that he proposed that she do the album completely solo with just vocals and mandolin, rather than a bluegrass setting. It was, to be sure, unconventional undertaking, but her mandolin playing, like that of Chris Thile was quite capable of creating a whole musical tapestry. However, to fill out the sound, bassist Ethan Jodziewicz whom Ms Hull had met and who impressed Fleck, was brought in. Fleck says in his notes, that they spent a long time on the arrangements, which are very spare with just the mandolin and acoustic bass for most of the album. The setting put the spotlight on the songs and Ms. Hull’s very attractive singing voice, which is not unlike that of Alison Krauss. And the arrangements make very effective use of the intimate setting, with the playing implying a lot more in sound. With many of the songs being vaguely melancholy or introspective, the sound is ideal. It’s an album that is remarkable for how much depth it shows with such a minimalist instrumental approach. There are four additional players on the album. Bela Fleck adds his banjo, very lightly to two tracks, and there are backing vocals from Alison Krauss, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Bela Fleck’s wife Abigail Washburn. But for the most part, it’s just mandolin, acoustic bass and one vocal.
Ms. Hull says that the lyrics came out of her experiences, she mentions her “struggles and confusion about life, love, God, band-mates, the road and all things ‛early 20s’.”
The album opens with a short, but plaintive-sounding piece called Stranded, whose only lyrics address the last item on her list. It sets the pattern for the album: the outstanding playing and the deceptively simple arrangement. <<>>
That segues into Compass whose title suggests the lyrics about seeking a direction in life. <<>>
Ms. Hull occasionally plays an octave mandolin, a lower-voiced variation on the instrument. Choice and Changes continues on the introspective philosophizing of the previous track. It’s nicely done and another good example of how just the two instruments can create interesting sonic and musical textures. <<>>
One of the tracks on which Rhiannon Giddens appears is another plaintive sounding song called Wings of the Dawn. Jodziewicz’s bass playing is memorable in the way it contributes to the song, essentially being co-equal to the mandolin at times. <<>>
Alison Krauss and Ms. Giddens also appears on the title track Weighted Mind, whose tempo is more upbeat, but that is somewhat belied by the lyrics. <<>>
Sounding more like a progressive bluegrass tune is a piece called The In-Between which features Abigail Washburn as guest backing vocalist. <<>>
There is one traditional song on the album, which is given a creative arrangement. It’s a medley of Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea. Bela Fleck makes one of his appearances on this track, which is for me one of the most outstanding on the album. <<>>
One of the songs Ms Hull had written previously before she abandoned the earlier version of the album is I’ll Be Fine, which is about as close to a pop or country song as you’ll find on the album. It’s nice hearing this kind of song in the spare setting. <<>>
On Sierra Hull’s new album Weighted Mind, she takes something of a chance, doing a record with such sparse instrumentation, with mainly just a mandolin and a bass. But in the hands of such a fine player and outstanding vocalist, it’s a real treat. Ms. Hull’s songs fit the sonically contemplative setting very well, and the arrangements, though outwardly simple, definitely show the large amount of thought that went into making the most of the duo sound with bassist Ethan Jodziewicz. The guest appearances by Alison Krauss, Rhiannon Giddens, Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck are subtle but with the texture of the album being what it is, their contributions are more notable.
Our grade for sound quality is an “A.” It’s the warm, inviting sound of the two acoustic instruments and the vocals, and all are captured well, and except for a tasteful amount of reverb, are free from obvious studio effects. The dynamic range, how the album handles the differences between loud and soft, definitely above average.
Listening to commercial pop, one gets the impression that producers are trying to shoehorn in as much extraneous sonic clutter and studio overkill as possible into every tune. A beautifully subtle, spare album like this is a reminder of how well the music can stand on its own when you have such great musicianship and good taste.
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