Although the sentiment is much the same ⎯⎯ one of “camaraderie and sticking together,” the folk power trio maintain ⎯⎯ I’m with Her is not to be confused with #ImwithHer, a hashtag which reached peak status during the 2016 presidential election as a way of certifying commitment to then-candidate Hillary Clinton. When Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz arrived on such a culturally-relevant statement, it was well before Clinton’s graphic designer Ida Woldemichael sketched the name in her notebook at a brainstorming session to come up with catchy bumper stickers. What was supposed to only be an entry in an online contest transformed into a rally for solidarity in the face of the resistance. The patriarchy made it damn near impossible for the first woman to be elected into the highest office in the country; they won, obviously, but it was only the beginning of a much larger, more important battle.
From #MeToo to #TimesUp, women are bravely reclaiming their right to live without fear of harassment, abuse and recourse. Straight white men, probably for the first time in their lives, are being held accountable of their shameful, disgusting and dangerous behavior. As a society, we still have plenty of miles to go before we sleep, but everyday, progress is made.
When it was announced Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan had formed a supergroup, drawing upon their distinct, accomplished pasts, it was met with sheer adulation, and rightfully so. Each instrumentalist, singer and songwriter possesses unmistakable fervor and singularity, and their stories could only birth genuinely great music. That’s where their long-awaited debut album, whose origins stretch back to early 2014, comes in. The trio’s See You Around (out Feb. 16), 12 tracks co-produced by Ethan Johns (Ray LaMontagne, Paul McCartney, Ryan Adams), who has played guitar for Emmylou Harris and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and recorded at Real World Studios in Bath, England, is stunningly breathy and unwittingly exemplifies the #ImwithHer movement. But really, it is the complex and sometimes difficult experience of womanhood that fastens the two together. Themes of femininity, sexuality, vulnerability, uncertainty, confidence and independence intertwine into a wholly satisfying threadbare story arc.
“Times are changing, this country’s growing,” O’Donovan, Jarosz and Watkins meditate with “Overland,” a peppy mid-tempo describing a west coast bound excursion to find oneself. “I’ve lived through more than I can tell / Sold all that I could sell / Finally leaving it behind / Goodbye, farewell,” they sing, shedding their former lives through tight harmony work. On “See You Around,” they dive headfirst into a tale of a broken heart, bemoaning the breakup with shiny instruments contrasting their sorrow-burdned vocals, “Breaking like the waves down on the coastline / Breaking like the wine stained glass that held my drink / Breaking like the heart that’s stuck inside my skin / Will it ever beat again / Or just go on bleeding ’til it’s empty / ’Til I fill it up again.” Then, “Game to Lose,” which echoes the spirit of Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line record, provokes the gamble of love even further. “Think about it / What’s the next move / And the next one / When is enough enough and when the going gets tough where can you go?,” they challenge.
“Ain’t That Fine” is a bubbly, steeped in cider kind of ditty and depicts looking back on mistakes made, trouble brewed, relationships tanked. “You’ve got a story, a dotted line / You have your sins, and I’ve got mine,” Watkins confesses atop crisp, agile playing. “I’ve been around, there were years when I was breaking every rule / But I’m coming down, I can’t believe the things I put my mother through,” she later divulges, pinpointing her very flawed nature. “Pangaea” looms ominously over the bunch. “It’s a lonely life / Everybody lives, everybody lies,” they brood, adding near the end, “The ocean is wider than you think ⎯⎯ in a continental jigsaw,” the collective pierce the skin down to the bone. “I-89” is a brash, jangly, open-road anthem, setting up their defense mechanisms against the raging elements. “Everybody wants a piece of me / Everybody wants to see what I see / But I can’t just give it to you like that,” they command, with an air of sly force.
“Wild One” glides ghost-like on their tongue (“Where once there was a city / There are ghosts who freely roam / And they’re kicking up the bones,” they warn), a pre-amble to “Waistfield,” a giddy, finger-plucking instrumental which cuts the album in halves. It’s a frolicsome interlude which gives the listener breathing room before the women return with “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree),” which beguiles the senses with a lethargic gleam. “I’ll make you mine / Under the apple tree / I planted for my love and me,” they entice, layering on subtle, smooth moves to a gentleman caller. It’s quietly wistful, hazy from the wine and smoldering sun. “Crescent City” is reminiscent of Alison Krauss, delicate and steady-moving, while “Close It Down” stretches the strings in calculated defiance about a man who cheats on his wife. “I’m not the first one in this town to come under your spell / You come on strong and stick around and you think you mean well,” the narrator expresses. “You want to take me out tonight, you want to buy the round / Bourbon by the bottle, you want to close it down / But when the last call lights come up you go home to your wife…”
The album climaxes with “Hundred Miles,” an unreleased Gillian Welch song, containing an 80-second a cappella vocal intro. “See the road stretch out for the old home place / See a glad tear standing on grandma’s face / Gonna get some love and a big hello in / That’s a hundred miles that I’m goin’,” Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan sing, both tired and exultant. The road comes with a heavy price, and one they gladly pay, but they return to their roots as an escape and to be revitalized again.
See You Around is an expressive and spellbinding entry in I’m with Her’s songbook. It is unmarred by the troubles and unrest of the world. Instead, it digs into the intricacies of the mind and the heart and binds them together, as one would do a dusty and well-worn collection of poems and short stories. In an age of declining returns and attention spans and the devaluing of music itself, this supergroup offer a spectacularly thrilling artwork to last for all time.
Grade: 4.5 out of 5
Photo Credit: Lindsey Byrnes