Artist: I’m With Her
Album: See You Around
In Brief: A smart but subdued folk/bluegrass record from an all-female trio that at times appears to be holding back the full power of their vocal harmonies and songwriting skills. This took a while for me to fully get into, but I can now say that I’m with I’m With Her.
The members of I’m With Her would like you to know that they chose their band name well before Hillary Clinton chose the exact same phrase as her campaign slogan. I’m sure they must get annoying questions about it constantly. The three ladies in the band – Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan – hail from San Diego, Austin, and Boston respectively, and the style of music they perform can be loosely described as “Americana” – essentially a hybrid of mellow folk and bluegrass, with the group mostly following the same configuration of fiddle, mandolin, and guitar as Watkins’ more well-known band Nickel Creek. Their music, as far as I can tell, is not overtly political, and their name seems to have been chosen primarily to indicate that the band is a collaborative process with no single person acting as leader – every one of them is “with” the other two, and they perform in mutual admiration of one another. OK, are we settled on the name and the general intentions of the band? Good. Let’s talk about the album now.
Despite performing together in some capacity for several years and releasing the occasional song along the way, 2018’s See You Around is the trio’s first full-length album. While I’m not personally familiar with the careers of Jarosz or O’Donovan before this point, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what to expect based on Watkins’ creative contributions to Nickel Creek’s work and also her own solo records – generally laid-back, pastoral instrumentation with soothing vocal harmonies to help it go down easy, maybe a little bit of genre experimentation to blur the lines regarding what can be considered “folk music”, and the occasional bit of vocal or instrumental sass that helps a song or two to rise above the album’s otherwise peaceful lull. There’s not a ton of showing off here, despite the wealth of collective talent between these three ladies – they seem to prefer blending in with each other seamlessly to the gratuitous spotlighting of any one member. I’m fine with that in the sense that no single person appears to dominate the creative process in the way that Chris Thile sometimes can in Nickel Creek, but it also makes it hard to tell who does what at times. While Watkins is primarily the violinist, Jarosz the mandolinist, and O’Donovan the guitarist, all three ladies contribute both acoustic and electric guitar at different points on this record, as well as a few other instruments, and their voices are all eerily similar, making it hard for me to even tell who sings lead or whose mind a particular song might have sprung from. The liner notes credit all three on general terms without going into detail on who did what for each specific track. Despite their diverse origins, I’m With Her seems to really want to hammer home the idea that they function as a democratic unit. This approach, along with the mild-mannered production style that can occasionally cause some elements to barely register in the background rather than being as crisp and clear as I’m normally prefer from an acoustic record of this sort, made it a bit difficult to fully appreciate the creative energy that went into both the music and lyrics of most of these songs on the first several listens. (To put it another way, this is a “headphones album”, not a “road trip album”.) Months after it came out, I’m only just warming up to a few of these songs beyond the initial ones that struck me as highlights.
And for those willing to sit quietly and listen carefully beyond the few spikes in energy, I think there’s a lot to discover in the group’s songwriting and instrumental phrasing. The expected songs about travel, troubled relationships, and the like are all present here, but a few tracks also take on interesting perspectives where it feels like a songwriter put some solid effort into writing from a point of view other than their own. Aside from the Gillian Welch cover that closes the album, this is all original material composed and arranged by the band. Aside from the presence of a single instrumental track that serves as a sort of intermission midway through the record, the focus is pretty squarely on songcraft here, making this record feel a bit like Nickel Creek’s This Side, at least in terms of the shift toward a singer/songwriter aesthetic in a genre where the folksy instrumentation is often the defining factor. While I can’t say that See You Around ever scales the same artistic heights as This Side, or whether that’s even a fair comparison to make, my response to both records is similar in terms of how long it’s taken me to warm up to them (and how in some cases I still am warming up to this one). Long story short: You have to be patient with this one, but it’s worth the effort.
(And yes, I’m aware of the similarity between this album’s cover and Haim‘s Days Are Gone. Apparently the thing to do if you’re a vocal-heavy, all-female trio is to take a photo-op of yourselves sitting in lawn chairs on a sunny day.)
1. See You Around
The opening track is one that seeps in slowly, rather than seeking to impress listeners right out of the gate. I’m a bit at odds with the soft, apparently canned strings that open it – they give the false impression that we’re being drawn into some sort of a fantasy sounscape, even though the instrumentation in the rest of the song (and throughout the album) is very down-to-earth and the lyrics rooted in reality. I do appreciate how the song weaves back and forth between one of the three women singing solo, two of them singing in harmony, and all three singing in unison. It’s not one of the more powerful vocal harmonies I’ve ever heard, but it’s a soothing one befitting the declaration that a woman simply wants to listen through all the noise and hear the far-away voice of the person she loves, with whom she’s apparently been at odds for a while. The imagery used in this song, which relies on ocean/beach metaphors and the notion of a heart breaking and being filled up again, isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but it sets the stage for an album on which a lot of the songs appear to be about people overcoming the vast distances between them.
2. Game to Lose
It’s unsurprising that this track was chosen as one of the album’s early singles, as it’s the one most likely to jump out at a first time listener, at least if you’re like me and you’re looking for a little more instrumental and vocal flare to contrast with all the mellow sweetness. This one feels quite similar to something Nickel Creek might have conjured up, due largely to how prominent Watkins’ fiddle is in the mix – it gently weaves through the verses and even gets a solo spotlight at one point, while the mandolin and guitar go from fluid finger-picking in the verses to a much bumpier, more urgent playing style in the chorus, which is the most fired up these three ladies sound at any point on this album. They seem to express exasperation over a person who is unwilling to take chances – perhaps on a romantic relationship or perhaps just on an important decision in their own life that could lead to genuine happiness if only the person would actually commit to it. I really enjoy the soft/loud dynamic in this song, and the gamut of emotions that it seems to run as the music becomes tense and urgent and then briefly relaxes again. This one’s got a solid amount of crossover appeal – especially now that tUnE-yArDs has taken a crack at remixing it.
3. Ain’t That Fine
This one’s got Watkins written all over it. It even mentions “a dotted line” as though it could have been a leftover track from the Nickel Creek album of the same name. Unfortunately it’s not a particularly eventful song – the mandolin and fiddle help to keep things pleasantly upbeat, but there seems to be zero conflict whatsoever in its lyrics. The title pretty well describes it – it’s just “fine”. Alright. So-so. The lyrics seem to describe a formerly troubled life that is now at peace, that may not seem all that remarkable to an observer but that is nothing to scoff at, either. I get the sentiment, but the whole thing seems to low-stakes that I can’t get excited despite the exuberant chorus vocals. If you’re gonna keep assuring me, “It’s nothing special, ain’t that fine”, then I guess you shouldn’t be surprised when I end up feeling like your singing about it is nothing special, either.
Continental drift is a pretty good metaphor for distance in a relationship, I guess. Björk certainly made it work in her song “Mutual Core”. There are no volcanic dynamics in play here, though – just the soft drone of an almost monotonous chorus where the ladies are singing together, before they split off into these little fragments of lyrics that seem almost blurted out in the verses – similar to their approach in “Game to Lose”, but not as energetic. I can see the pain inherent in a lot of the lyrics as they milk their metaphor for all it’s worth, and I can feel the longing in some of Sara’s somberly textured violin melodies as they slowly reach up into the atmosphere, begging to be heard by someone who is too far away to listen. This song doesn’t move mountains for me, but it’s mildly pretty in its own sad way.
This might actually be the most clever song on the album. It’s also the most startling – even though it’s not quite as energetic as the louder parts of “Game to Lose”, it throws the listener’s expectations for a loop by leading off with a fuzzy electric guitar (or bass, perhaps?) that offers a little dissonance for the acoustic instruments to play against. The chorus melody is one of the album’s most memorable and fun to sing along to, even if it’s a bit on the wordy side, it keeps looping back on itself in a way that makes it easy for the listener to pick up on what’s going on and have that bit of sassy melody stuck in their head by the end of it. “If there was another way out, I’d take it/If there was another way down, I’d go/If there was another way other than the highway/Show me on a map, point out the road.” I like how these lyrics are basically calling someone’s bluff for taking a “my way or the highway” approach to a relationship and then apparently denying that this is what they’re doing. These lyrics make it pretty clear that this other person’s way isn’t realistic, prompting them to prove that there’s a third option aside from one of them saying “See ya later” and hitting the Interstate. (The actual I-89, named in the title but nowhere in the song itself, is a major artery in Vermont and New Hampshire helping to link the cities of Boston and Montreal, so I’m gonna take an educated guess based on geography that this was an O’Donovan lyric.) I like how it plays with the notion that folk songs are so often about travel, but the road map they’re actually referring to isn’t actually a physical one that you can fold up and keep in your glove box, or bring up as an app on your phone. As much as I consider this track a highlight, I’m actually even more drawn to the Spotify Singles rendition of it, which swaps out the fuzzy guitar for a banjo, and which seems to have a tighter and more forceful arrangement overall. Either way, it’s an incredibly well-written and well-performed song that reminds us this old genre still has some new tricks up its sleeve in 2018.
6. Wild One
There’s a lot of soft “ooh”-ing in this one. it’s produced in such a soft manner that you’re likely to miss most of what’s going on if you just have it on in the background while there are other ambient noises in the room or the car to distract from it. I can’t say a whole lot about the instrumentation – it’s not an acapella song, but not much stands out to me aside from the vocals, and their gentle plea of “Do not cross over/Don’t get yourself undone/Do not cross over/The other side is a wild one.” it could be a plea to someone who is ready to check out on life, telling them they need to hang on, but it’s so understated that it doesn’t really have a lot of emotional impact. There’s probably a lot more depth here than I’m giving it credit for – they may be referencing the melody or lyrics of some folk or Gospel standard that I could be completely unaware of. it has that sort of feel to it. It just isn’t a performance that really compels me to keep coming back to it.
It should be no surprise at this point that I’m generally drawn to the more fiddle-oriented tracks on this album. This one’s a quick instrumental – just two minutes and change – and it’s at once the most traditional and most celebratory thing on the album, based around a cutesy, up-tempo fiddle melody that I can easily picture people square dancing to at one of those farms where you go apple picking or something. It picks up even more about halfway through, until it’s running at almost breakneck speed – it’s not quite as frantically paced as something like Nickel Creek’s “Scotch and Chocolate”, but it’s heading in that general direction.
8. Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)
Speaking of apple picking, this tender ballad draws a pretty strong connection between making apple pie and making love. It’s not an overtly sexual song, but the act of gathering fruit and baking a delicious dessert together seems like it may as well be a form of foreplay, given the meek-but-kinda-sultry vibe of the performance here. It’s sort of a waltz, gently picked out on an electric guitar before the other instruments come in, and like much of the album, I’m less drawn to the instruments than the vocals. This one’s cute at first, but it gets a bit tedious – I find myself wishing they’d either laid the youthful nostalgia on thicker and taken it in a twee pop direction, or exaggerated the sensual twists and turns in the vocal melody a little bit more to give it a seductive feel a la Over the Rhine. It ends up in a vaguely pleasant middle space between the two that doesn’t really do a whole lot for me.
I really didn’t care for this song at first, but I have to say it’s the track from this album that has grown on me the most. It took me some time to appreciate, despite its overall slow pace similar to the songs around it, how Jarosz had actually swapped out her mandolin for banjo here, and how the lyrics told a story of actual geographic separation between family members at a time when traveling from one end of the United States to the other was no easy task. Watkins sings lead on this one (which I only know because I’ve seen an in-studio performance of it), and she seems to take on the role of a railroad worker who has to leave family behind in Chicago because the only viable economic opportunity to provide for them is thousands of miles away in San Francisco. So this character takes on the journey, but deeply resents the extra years all the stress and toil and poor medical standards of the era have put on their face, lamenting, “If it isn’t one thing, then it’s one thing more If it isn’t a fever that shows you the door It’s the air, or the water or the goddamn war.” The use of “goddamn” really startled me here, which might be part of the reason I didn’t take to the song at first. In context, it’s a more-than-reasonable thing to get upset and rage against the heavens about. You really feel when listening to this song that this migrant worker simply wants to do what’s best by their family, and they’re coming from a place of poverty instead of privilege, where the entire universe seems to have stacked the cards against them. Shouldn’t be hard to figure out why a song like this resonates with me here in 2018.
10. Crescent City
Even though we’re drowning in an endless sea of ballads that are hard to tell apart on first glance at this point, this one stood out to me right away simply by being about a lesser-known place in California than the types of places that usually get mentioned in popular music. Crescent City is way at the tip-top of Northern California, right before the Oregon border, deep in redwood country, and the overall vibe of this song makes it easy to picture a person taking a long drive up highway 101, leaving their normal life behind for a few days, and trying to find themselves again. Even though the performance itself isn’t particularly gritty, the lyrics hint at a return to more of a simple life, existing closer to the earth: “Dirt under your fingernails/Wipe the mud from the window sill/In this world of sweat and tears/Make a life worth of living.” I’m drawn to that ideal, for some reason, even though it’s not the kind of life that appeals to me personally – I guess I’m just used to passing through small towns on road trips and wondering what people’s lives there are like, and this song seems to come from a similar perspective. Watkins’ fiddle does a nice job of trailing after the chorus, following a similar melody, and the chorus melodies are some of the sweetest on the album. It’s not quite as strong of a highlight as the ones in the front half of the album, but it’s easily my favorite thing in the back half.
11. Close It Down
This song comes drifting in and out so gently, at a point in the album where I’m honestly longing for something to shake up the status quo, that it was very easy for me to miss what its lyrics were about on the first several listens. It’s four verses and a bridge, without an identifiable chorus, basically comprising a conversation between two lonely people at a bar, their memories growing fuzzy, trying to remember why they’re there and whether they have a good reason to stay with each other or get up and leave. It isn’t revealed until the end of the song, when the bar is closing and it’s time for the wayward couple to go home either together or alone, that the guy remembers he’s got a wife to go home to. It’s sung so softly, with the end of the song coming rather abruptly right after it, that the big “wham” effect it’s meant to have when the listener realizes what was at stake here is kind of muted. Really interesting idea for a song – it just deserves more of an attention-grabbing delivery, I think.
12. Hundred Miles
The final song, while it’s yet another subdued performance that doesn’t do a whole lot to motivate me to care at this point, does at least provide some good thematic closure for the album. This is the aforementioned Gillian Welch cover, and I’m pretty sure it’s not the first time I’ve heard someone in Nickel Creek’s general orbit offer their take on one of her songs – she seems to be a wellspring of cover-worthy material. The acapella first verse sounds like the kind of thing that’s going to build up to a bigger arrangement, and then there’s this big organ swell leading into the second verse, where the instrumentation comes in, but none of it does anything to really lift the melody or the energy level of the song. It’s a mellow, weary song about traveling, and it’s probably meant to be – I just feel a bit misled by the hope of it turning into more of a standout performance. If you like, you can imagine that this is a final letter home from the weary traveler we last heard from in “Overland”, as they’ve finally made enough of a life for themselves that they can now have a tearful reunion with their long lost family who have since been scattered to the wind, and set about building better lives together than the ones they left behind in Chicago all those years ago. It’s one of those songs that, by itself, would just strike me as a so-so vignette of life out in the prairies, where the roads are straight and flat, the asphalt is unforgivingly hot in the summertime, and the distance between one small semblance of civilization and the next are vast. This either sets a stage on which other stories can be told, or clears the stage after those stories are told, and the group seems to have chosen it in this case to do the latter.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
See You Around $1
Game to Lose $1.75
Ain’t That Fine $.50
Wild One $.25
Ryland (Under the Apple Tree) $.25
Crescent City $1.25
Close It Down $1
Hundred Miles $.25
Sara Watkins: Vocals, violin, ukulele, acoustic and electric guitar
Sarah Jarosz: Vocals, mandolin, mando-guitar, banjo, acoustic and electric guitar
Aofie O’Donovan: Vocals, acoustic and electric guitar, piano, keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: