Just who is this Sarah Rogo and why are all the recordings on her new album Smoke and Water so seductive? To the first part of the question, she’s a singer-songwriting, guitar-playing Californian who is admired by established artists such as Joe Bonamassa, Jimmies Vaughan and Vivino, and Larkin Poe, all of whom she either has toured with or opened for. Having impressed music mogul Mike Lembo at California’s Durango Songwriter Expo, she joined his stable of artists, then Live at Lestat’s West, her performance of original material at the famed San Diego venue, was released in 2018. With 2019 quickly flying by, her first studio album, Smoke and Water, now is ready to go and though it carries the same level of artist “presence” as its predecessor, its sonic landscapes submerge Rogo more deeply into the heart of each song.
Self-produced by Rogo with Mitchell Haeuszer, Smoke and Water lets the artist explore her internal country without any interference. Her song structures mostly are “normal,” aka traditional singer-songwriter, her musical influences seemingly everything. She synthesizes them all within her counter-intuitive, electric guitar meets Appalachia backdrops, her creating a thoroughly original approach whose brown earthiness sometimes unintentionally winks at great lost works such as Marshall Chapman’s Me I’m Feelin’ Free.
One of the best recordings on Smoke and Water is the vulnerable “Here Goes Nothing,” the first of three piano-backed tracks and the most “mainstream” recording of the project. It’s loaded with subtle grab-you lines like, “Have mercy, I’m falling in instead of down,” “Lonely feels familiar, each new thing peculiar,” “I think you’re something so here goes nothing,” and perhaps in another era, this would have been what used to be called a “radio hit.” On this recording and virtually every other on the album, emotion is built into her casual vocals, so she fells no need for overkill or phony fake passionate delivery. Her vocals have the assertiveness of Nanci Griffiths and have a bit in common with Dolly Parton sans the quaver. Rogo’s cover of the latter’s country classic “Jolene” gets to the heart of that song’s dark implied message — I might have to kill you if… — so effectively it leaves the listener with both an unsettling aftertaste and the impression of previously never really having heard the song before.
To that point, part of the success of Smoke and Water is its mix of original material and “covers,” though that designation blurs when hearing Rogo’s delivery instantly transform others’ songs into her own could-have-been creations. For instance, if you think you know Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” forget it. Apparently, it always was meant to be an acoustic waltz set in a minor key complete with clarinet, a lone companion harmony in spots, its setting right out of a Hunger Games movie. She closes the album with her electric guitar/vocal reinterpretation of the Jimi Hendrix burner “Voodoo Child” that needs no other description beyond this freaky original take probably would make its composer devilishly smile.
Although she covers songs like they’re her own, she also gives as good as she takes as a songwriter. Though “Run” introduces itself as a “White Rabbit” cousin, after the initial head fake, it shifts into a fast-paced musical and emotional escape scene. Her electric guitar accompaniment is mesmerizing as per the standard set throughout the album, once again, because of the quality of her songwriting and vocal performance. Topically, throughout “Run,” Rogo realizes some things just “are” as she realizes she has to escape her current situation. Lines like “Canary in the coal mine told me not to let the darkness choke me, sometimes you’ve got to stay but some battles can’t be won, sometimes you’ve just got to run.” Sequentially, the song expertly sets up the previously-referenced “Jolene,” both sharing a backwoods foreboding, and those songs’ same protagonist appears in another original, the chilling “Which Wolf,” the third Smoke and Water track with piano. Following the eight previous songs, this self-examination sums-up or is an observation of everything on Smoke and Water that’s come before “I used to be afraid of the dark, the places where the shadows left their mark, I used to be afraid of the ghosts, now I’ve learned it’s me I fear the most,” is a warning about which person you might become, the one who is built on preconceptions or the one who grows away.
Another original, “Love And Be Loved,” begins with a 3/4 tempo piano nod to “Lean On Me” and takes comfort in its love song simplicity, a needed break from the grip the album relentlessly has on our attention. Speaking of intensity, the title track is anything but a respite, its “smoke” and “water” almost seeming to be a mistake since “smoke and ash” is the cliché we’re used to. As the song reveals, this is about an emergency evacuation from an impending, apparently fast-paced forest fire. The song’s protagonist must now evacuate, and all this possibly is subject matter never before attempted in popular song. Imagine as you’re leaving your home of whatever years as the air is thick with both smoke and the water firefighters are utilizing to regain control. And here is where the point of the album might be since almost every song deals with either the loss of or maintaining of control — emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Quite frankly, there’s nothing else to say about Smoke and Water or its creator since like the album’s material, this is a powerful story in progress.