Personnel: Sierra Hull (vocals, mandolin).
Liner Note Authors: Sierra Hull; Ethan Jodziewicz; Béla Fleck.
Recording information: Sanctuary Studios, Nashville, TN.
Photographer: Gina Binkley.
We last heard from Sierra Hull when she was 19 years old. The mandolin virtuoso's transitions between bluegrass and newgrass were authoritative beyond her years. Five years on, her third album, Weighted Mind, showcases her abilities as a singer/songwriter whose depth and inspiration are enhanced by that technical facility. This is not a picker's album per se -- though there is plenty of great playing on it. Hull wrote or co-wrote ten of these eleven tunes. The set was co-produced with Bela Fleck. Partially with his encouragement, Weighted Mind is deliberately sparse. On most tracks, Hull's mandolin and voice are accompanied only by upright bassist Ethan Jodziewicz. His playing -- pizzicato and arco -- offers glorious contrast musically and texturally. This no-net approach finds Hull walking the wire of melodies and lyrics that reflect the album's title. Loss, confusion, regret, sorrow, longing, and determination are all addressed. The intro "Stranded" offers deft flatpicking and pastoral arco bass before Hull's only words, "Dear 22, I'm stranded here..." shatter that reverie. On "Compass," she states matter of factly: "I'd like to say to you, come follow/But you may find my heart's been hollowed out." The music is sprightly; chunky chords and sure-footed picking express her restlessness: "My skin is old, I need to shed it/'Cause there's more to me, I have to let it out.." That determination is underscored in "Wings of the Dawn," where bluegrass, blues, and newgrass meet wiry Americana. (Rhiannon Giddens delivers harmony vocals in support.) The jazzy dissonance in the title track offers perspective to the difficult existential questions its lyric poses. The bumping bassline, adds a groove under it all, though, while Giddens' and Alison Krauss' backing vocals underscore the protagonist's plight. Hull plays an octave mandolin on "Fallen Man," a dreamy and vulnerable reflection on a relationship. The stark beauty in "Lullaby" is easily the set's simplest, and perhaps its most poetic, track: "Mother will you sing to me/Something soft and sweet/I'm too old for a lullaby/But I'll never be too old to cry.." Fleck adds his banjo to a reworking of the traditional "Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea" -- which weaves together newgrass, mountain folk, and Celtic-tinged jazz -- and Hull plays a killer solo break. "Black River" brings the album full circle with an acoustic country song. Giddens, Krauss, and Abigail Washburn provide harmony vocals as Hull restates that opening phrase from "Compass" as an affirmation -- she embraces her lostness -- and offers an invitation to another to share it on her terms. Those who know Hull's work as a superpicker would do well to investigate this dimension of her persona as well. For the rest of us, Weighted Mind is a poignant, bracing work by an adept singer and songwriter. She openly invites us into her world with real vulnerability and honesty, and reveals her inner strength in doing so. ~ Thom Jurek