3.5 out of 5 stars
The term “child prodigy” comes pre-loaded with unfair expectations. So, you can’t blame the now 24 year old mandolin talent Sierra Hull to want to distance herself from a description aimed at everyone from Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Derek Trucks to one of her mentors in the music business, Alison Krauss. Perhaps the best way to accomplish that is through the passage of time, which may partially explain the five year gap between Hull’s well received previous album and this one, her third for the prestigious Rounder label.
Although attempts were made to record this follow-up as far back as 2013, she abandoned that project and spent the intervening years crafting a fresh direction. Along with veteran banjo master/producer Bela Fleck, Hull wrote more introspective songs and arranged them for a stripped down (generally just mandolin and upright bass) approach. While the mandolin/bass instrumentation places this into bluegrass, the songs firmly push into indie folk/contemplative singer/songwriter territory. “I’m tired of spinning around/throw my doubt into the sea,” she sings in “Compass” which, along with the following “Choices and Changes” (“I’m tired of being someone else”) clearly describes the life alterations that informed this new phase in Hull’s career.
The predominantly ballad program ranges from the twinkling, hopeful “Wings of the Dawn” to the minor key, ominous strum of the title track. Hull shies away from the lightning fast fretwork she is capable of, instead concentrating on her lilting voice and personal lyrics that convey internal conflicts and an inward focus only acquired through life experiences. In other words, this album would have sounded much different two or four years ago as she might have continued in the fertile if somewhat limiting backwoods music. It’s a concept she examines on the relatively jaunty “The In-Between” (“22 years with so much to learn/too young to crash but not to get burned”) and reinforces, perhaps a bit too often, on other songs.
Even if he is only given supporting credit, bassist Ethan Jodziewicz is integral to Hull’s sound. His lines, often bowed to infuse spare drama, shift from mournful and reflective to jazzy and fluttering, the latter on “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea” where he along with Hull’s mandolin are joined by Fleck’s banjo. Krauss, Abigail Washburn and Rhiannon Giddens also appear on vocal harmonies that augment but never distract from Hull’s songs or singing.
All but one track is written or co-penned by Hull who has elegantly morphed from a young phenomenon to a mature adult with grace and subtlety. On Weighted Mind she showcases her obvious instrumental talents while displaying a newfound attention to reflective, beautifully conceived songwriting.