I’m With Her sounds less like a one-off collaboration and more like a band staying in it for the long run.
Given the occurrences in US politics of the last few years, folk act I’m With Her might have an unfortunate band name, even if it’s fitting. The trio – made up of the accomplished Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan – has no political motivation, and their work together predates Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan. The name, though, does point to the group’s mutual collaboration. After a few years of shows and limited recording, the group’s proper debut See You Around reveals an act committed to persistent blending. They trade lead vocals and nuanced instrumental parts, and they excel in the harmonies at the fore of the album.
Single “Overland” draws on traditional Americana cross-country explorations, its spare acoustic music leaving plenty of space for those harmonies on the chorus. With the lead vocal, Watkins focuses on a broad feeling, yet the lyrics slowly reveal bits of a narrative, turning that general yearning into a specific story as we glimpse the familial characters. The track reveals a band that’s patient, but features a narrator ready to move, and that sort of mingling permeates the album, where the artists are confident and precise even as they depict a sort of motion, whether geographically or emotionally.
The album starts with a developed comfort in change on its opening title track. The vocalist says, “I guess I’ll be going now,” moving away from a broken relationship, and finding the possibility of a personal refill in the motion. Directed by Watkins’ fiddle, “Game to Lose” follows with its joint declaration of strength and uncertainty. The song argues in support of risk-taking, but that’s an element the album could use more of. The musicians construct the songs more intricately than it might initially appear, and teasing out the way they develop textures and shift parts adds to the joy of listening, but the disc seldom feels like it’s anywhere near an edge.
That’s not necessarily a problem, and when the group isn’t contemplating movement, there’s great strength in stability. “Ain’t That Fine” makes for one of the better songs around praising the humdrum. The line “It’s nothing special, ain’t that fine, ain’t that fine?” doesn’t criticize the routine, instead celebrating the little moments that build into something valuable, like friends sharing “supper on the floor.” “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” plants a singer and her lover in the shade, quietly enjoying kisses now while contemplating the regular autumnal cider and pies.
The disc closes with the Gillian Welch-penned “Hundred Miles,” putting all three singers back on the road. The unaccompanied three-part harmonies slowly give way to meditative music, and, although the song is the only piece not co-written by I’m With Her, it wraps up the group’s vision, taking its time with precise music while finding an inability to stand still. A relationship, we hope, waits at the end of the song’s 100 miles, making the travel worth the effort. Through it all, whether breaking apart or pulling together, I’m With Her sounds less like a one-off collaboration and more like a band staying in it for the long run.