Having tested the waters with a single and a couple of EPs since 2015, the Americana super-group trio I’m With Her now releases its debut full-length See You Around. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb here to predict it will be one of the top Americana albums of the year.
I’m With Her is Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, three of the top roots musicians of their generation. (Well, Watkins and O’Donovan are the “big sisters” of the trio, being Jarosz’ seniors by a decade or so.) Watkins and O’Donovan both were in seminal roots bands (Nickel Creek and Crooked Still, respectively), and have a lot of experience playing not just roots music but rock, jazz and more. Watkins, for example, has toured with The Decemberists and recorded with Richard Thompson, and O’Donovan has sung with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Jerry Douglas, Darrol Anger and the Dave Douglas Quintet. Jarosz, though younger, has three solo albums, several Grammy nominations, and has played with Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Kate Rusby and more.
The three first got together as a one-off at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2014 and realized they liked it. To my ear they all have voices in somewhat the same range, so when they harmonize they sound almost as close as sisters. They can also take turns singing high, low and middle parts, which is a real plus and makes for some startlingly beautiful harmonies.
Harmony is the name of the game on See You Around. The album has 11 originals and one un-released Gillian Welch song. Though mostly contemporary folk music, the selections include an old-time instrumental and a wide range of styles from Appalachian to Celtic-like New Age to bluesy folk-rock.
They released the title track last fall when announcing the upcoming album, and you can listen to it here. Jarosz sings lead on what’s at root an Appalachian-style ballad of heartbreak and lost love that becomes a declaration of strength. It’s a bare-bones arrangement of two guitars and a mandolin, which leaves a lot of room for the introduction of the intricate harmony scheme these three have mapped out – which on this number slips into a shimmery pop harmony on the bridge verse.
They’ve also released the second track “Game To Lose” as a single. It starts right off with three-part harmony on the stop-start staccato lyrics, breaking into swinging folk-rock on the bridge verses. Their sure-footed sense of what a song needs shows in this masterful arrangement, Jarosz’s mandolin marking time like a stopwatch and Watkins’ long-note fiddle line undulating over it like the singer’s feelings about playing the long game of life.
Watkins carries most of the vocal load on “Overland,” a ballad of a young man forced by economic circumstances to leave home for a new life. This performance of that song on “Live From Here” is very nice.
I’m also quite taken with the delicious pastoral love song “Ryland (Under The Apple Tree),” which features O’Donovan singing lead (I think – like I said, their voices are close in range). Watkins’ fiddle line is especially sensuous, and there’s a shimmering electric guitar solo that reminds you of a late summer afternoon, and after they sing about swimming in cider and pressing the fruit into butter and baking it into pies, and lolling about under the apple tree, well, I had to take off my hat and fan myself.
The main road from Montreal to Boston through upper New England becomes a symbol of a yearning for escape from demands and expectations on “I-89.” With its prominent fuzz bass it is as close to rock as this album comes. “Everybody wants a piece of me, everybody wants to see what I see, but I can’t just give it to you like that,” O’Donovan sings about the emotional toll of a relationship that’s too demanding on one side and not giving enough on the other, whether it’s with an audience or a friend or loved one. It’s a knockout of a song that sucks you in to its intricate melody, danceable beat and fascinating arrangement, then slays you with the chilling lyrics.
If you want more in that vein – chilling, that is – check out “Close it Down,” which starts with a haunting Celtic-sounding fiddle drone and resolves into a defiant but polite middle finger aimed at the song’s subject, a clueless rake of an adulterer. I’d anticipate some speculation about the possible non-fictional nature of this song, seeing as how all three of these women spent time on the “Prairie Home Companion” tour in the past few years.
Roots music is full of death ballads, although the closest this album comes to that is “Wild One.” Ironically for a song of that title, it’s the most languid of songs on See You Around, and in fact I at first took it for a Gillian Welch song, due to the slow tempo and also the subject matter. The singers are pleading with someone to not “cross over.” This delicate arrangement is a real test of the singers, both individually and in harmony, as well as of their instrumental skills; a little gem hidden in the middle of the record.
The actual Welch song is “Hundred Miles,” the final track, a lonely ballad of the “I’m going away” sort. Watkins sings lead, unaccompanied on the first verse, and the song builds as voices and instruments are added – including a wheezing harmonium. It sounds like it was recorded around a single mic in someone’s living room, and is a fine way to end an album.
These dozen songs are beautifully realized by the band and co-producer Ethan Johns, who has recorded countless acts (including Paul McCartney) and knows how to capture the delicate acoustic instruments and strong voices of Americana in the studio. The music of I’m With Her benefits from a good set of headphones, because the recording places the voices and instruments with clear separation in an open, airy space.
If you at all like contemporary folk, Americana, roots music, whatever you want to call it, you’ll probably find a lot to like on See You Around. This trio will be taking its music all over the Western world on a headlining tour this year, so keep an eye on their website for a date near you.