Home Jason's Jukebox Album reviews: Sarah Jarosz, Willi Carlisle, William Elliott Whitmore

Album reviews: Sarah Jarosz, Willi Carlisle, William Elliott Whitmore

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Sarah Jarosz – Polaroid Lovers (Rounder)
Sarah Jarosz has been a darling of the roots music world since her arrival in 2009, earning four Grammys, along with many other notable accolades. However, they’ve all reflected her background in folk and bluegrass. Now with Polaroid Lovers, her seventh album and first since 2021, the Texan has reached the crossroads all roots artists must eventually face in terms of making a move into the mainstream. Helping her with that transition is Kacey Musgraves collaborator, producer/songwriter Daniel Tashian, whose slick touch places Sarah’s soothing voice at the centre of a mix that emphasizes an overall instrumental blend over some of the flat-out picking that highlighted her previous albums. There are also notable co-writes with the likes of Ruston Kelly, Jon Randall, and Canada’s own Gordie Sampson sure to guarantee airplay, although an opening sequence of tracks is squarely aimed at getting the Swifties attuned to Sarah’s sound, Polaroid Lovers eventually settles into a mid-paced groove that allows the well-crafted words of “Take The High Road,” “Don’t Break Down On Me” and “Good At What I Do” to fully sink in. It’s these tracks that ultimately save Polaroid Lovers from succumbing to beige experimentation, but for some it may not be enough. Sarah Jarosz is certainly an artist that deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation as Musgraves and Brandi Carlile, but Polaroid Lovers doesn’t quite show she’s ready yet.

Willi Carlisle – Critterland (Signature Sounds)
With his breakthrough 2022 album, Peculiar, Missouri, Arkansas native Willi presented himself as a kind of throwback rural entertainer, a musician willing to go to any lengths to get a crowd on his side, while performing songs grounded in the culture of rural America. The follow-up, Critterland, continues to build Willi’s legend with 10 densely lyrical tales constructed around simple clawhammer banjo parts, beginning with the title track containing such lines as, “When marauders come ‘cause the apocalypse is nigh, I want my rifle on my shoulder, my lover by my side.” While this could have easily been cribbed from a song recorded in the ‘30s, Willi sings it with convincing immediacy. The same can be said of “Dry County Dust,” with its images of chickens in the back yard, preserves in jars, and mama in the kitchen singing “sweet by-and-by.” It’s all strong stuff resting on a simple foundation that culminates with the devastating “When The Pills Wear Off” and the epic, seven-minute, half-spoken closer “The Money Grows On Trees,” which makes growing marijuana in the ‘80s sound like ancient history. Critterland is a lot to take in, but if you can absorb it, you’ll be immediately convinced that Willi Carlisle is one of the most compelling songwriters around right now.

William Elliott Whitmore – Silently, The Mind Breaks (Whitmore Records)
On his first independent release after recording for various labels over the past 25 years, Iowa native Elliott aims for clarity, relying primarily on guitar, banjo and his own voice that contains echoes of Ralph Stanley, Waylon Jennings and others from whom he’s borrowed to craft a sound steeped in Southern Gothic mysticism. The characters he paints within the songs are all easily discernable to anyone familiar with the old, weird America: rounders and outcasts doing whatever is necessary to get through each day, knowing full well those days are likely numbered. But while the material on Silently, The Mind Breaks is often lively and memorable, the promise of full-on psychosis suggested by the album’s title is unfortunately not fulfilled. That’s not necessarily a criticism, but those who enjoyed Elliott’s previous albums like 2009’s Animals In The Dark and 2011’s Field Songs will surely feel as if something’s missing.

SONG OF THE WEEK
Charley Crockett / “$10 Cowboy” (Son Of Davy)

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