Monday, April 7, 2014

album review: 'oklahoma lottery' by karen jonas

So here's a problem in the internet age that only critics will really complain about: with the advent of iTunes and Bandcamp, it has become very easy for a lot of music to be released independently - which, more often than not, is a very good thing, as it allows the artists to retain their unique sound and flavour and not get hammered into a marketable brand by the label system. But what it also means is that if I only covered new releases that showed up on Bandcamp and released reviews 365 days a year, I would still fall even more hopelessly behind than I already am.

As such, when an act from the independent country scene that I've never heard of starts to get some serious critical acclaim, I take notice, especially when I start to hear one of her biggest selling points is her songwriting. This takes us to Karen Jonas from Fredericksburg, Virginia and her debut album Oklahoma Lottery. Apparently, she has less of a web presence than I do - which, for an indie act building buzz, is a little startling - but then again, it's a little more excusable than mainstream country acts that have the same problem. And as always, I tempered my expectations: even though one of my top albums of the year thus far is the Texas indie country release Daylight & Dark by Jason Eady, I'm also very conscious of the fact that critics can tend to upsell indie acts that catch them by surprise. It's a natural human instinct, and sometimes it can eclipse critical thought and analysis. So with that in mind, I bought Oklahoma Lottery from Bandcamp and gave it my due: did Karen Jonas deliver?

Well, yeah, she really did, because Oklahoma Lottery is a great country album that I definitely enjoyed and that really does a lot right. This is the sort of strong, independent debut as both a performer and a songwriter that should - if there's any justice - get a lot of industry attention, and yet at the same time, it's also an album with a unique flavour that separates her from other rising talents. She's not as actively abrasive as Lydia Loveless nor as socially conscious and quirky as Kacey Musgraves - for me, Karen Jonas falls into a similar vein of maturity as Brandy Clark's excellent debut last year with 12 Stories, albeit with a very different tone than that record had.

So what makes Karen Jonas stand out? Well, for one, her instrumentation is solid as hell, with the well-picked acoustic instrumentation providing great balance for a selection of cohesive guitar tones, well-balanced bass, and surprisingly textured percussion. In fact, there's a fair amount of grit on the edges of this album that I really appreciated - which I didn't really expect, given the smoother guitar tones. It lends this album a richness and sense of place in rural Americana without ever overwhelming the sound - it's flavour, and the grit is a great balance for the darker, yet very human elements on this album. If I were to have a small nitpick in the production, it would be that there could be some greater dynamics on this album - most of the track placements, especially Karen Jonas' vocals, feel very close to the front of the mix, which gives the album a lot of intimacy but the mix could have had a bit more depth to let some of the excellent strumming grow and simmer.

Now, granted, I get why Karen Jonas is placed close to the front of the mix, because she is a real presence behind the microphone on an album that really requires a delicate emotional balance to execute these songs. She has that real air of bitter tiredness that lends a lot of humanity and reality to her songs, and it's an authenticity that has range and character. 'Suicide Sal', the title track, 'I Never Learn', 'Lucky', they all require a certain level of weary resignation to pull off effectively, and she nails it. On the flip side, the fact she has something of a sense of humour lends the album's cornier bits a fair bit of charm. On the other hand, I won't say she's bad on the love songs, but her range isn't quite as expressive and thus 'Steppin' On Your Toes' or 'Thinkin' Of You Again' don't really resonate with me as strongly as I was hoping. Don't get me wrong, they're still good songs, but especially in 'Thinkin' Of You Again' there's an underlying melancholy to the song that I don't quite feel she completely captures as well as she could.

Thankfully, she more than makes up for this in the songwriting, where I'd argue the real star potential of this album really comes to light. I feel I should mention the odd breaks in technical rhyme scheme and a few lyrics that could have used a second draft, but Karen Jonas quite frankly brings a ton of wit and descriptive power to her tracks to enhance the grit of her instrumentation, and her artistic framing is impeccable, adding a real sense of vulnerability and added weight to her material. It makes even her flights of dark fantasy like on 'Suicide Sal' feel real even though it's yet another play on the Bonnie & Clyde story. But it's where she goes for more original subject matter that I feel this album really brings something impressive. 'Get Out Of My Head' is a message to an ex to move on that is clearly delivered with some lingering feelings, which she knows will be easier for her to put away once he's found someone new. 'I Never Learn' places her as the 'other woman' in a cheating story where she's the one who steps up to deliver a violent ultimatum. And you know, as silly as 'White Trash Romance' is, there's so much flavour and charm in the lyrics that you can mostly ignore the cornball sensibility in which it was written.

But if we're going for a theme on this album, it's more a subtle, weary acknowledgement that sometimes despite your choices, life doesn't always work and we just have to keep trying to make something of it - even if that's a Sisyphean task. And it's that sense of desperation into achieving something that gives this album its dramatic weight. The title track, for instance, discusses a drought that devastates a small community and how to reconcile it with a loving God, all of which nearly drives Karen Jonas to leave for California... except she realizes that this is where her home is and she can't exactly abandon that. 'Money' is a little bit more straightforward in its desperate plea, but it works simply because the lyrics don't hold back from the terrified anger that comes from poverty. And 'Lucky' might be the most ambitious song on the album, capturing the hard-bitten air of a professional gambler - both in money and love - and concealing the veiled warning that you don't see her when things go wrong.  That being said, I feel the weaker songs on this album are when the stakes are not as harsh. 'Thinkin' Of You Again' is a great encapsulation of that late night phone call to an ex, and it's well framed enough in the lyrics to capture both the desperation that drove it and the resignation that it's just not going to happen, but I feel the emotional delivery could have been stronger. Similarly, 'The River Song' is a good melody about personal redemption, but it feels a little out-of-character with the rest of the album and didn't quite resonate with me in the same way.

But overall, Oklahoma Lottery by Karen Jonas is excellent and definitely worth your time if you want to find some heartfelt country that has the air of reality. It's not a perfect record, as some elements in the production, songwriting, and delivery could do with a few minor adjustments to make it a little more powerful, but for a debut record, it's a very impressive start, especially off of an independent release. For me, it's an 8/10 and a strong recommendation. And major labels, if you're looking for more strong women in country music - and with Kacey Musgraves' continued critical acclaim, I know you are - you all need to give Karen Jonas a listen, because she's definitely the real deal.


  1. Pretty girl on the photo! If it is Karen Jonas I will certainly start singing country!

  2. Yeap. This album is very beautiful. I try it. Its cool