Monday, October 17, 2016

album review: 'country songs' by karen jonas

I can imagine even if you're a fan of independent country you likely won't recognize this name, especially if you're newer on this channel.

And really, that's a shame, but it's also to be expected. I found Karen Jonas effectively by accident, as her album Oklahoma Lottery was picking up some buzz among critics and pretty much nowhere else. And while I remember being startled when I covered the record in 2014, I'm not all that surprised nowadays, especially given the kind of uncompromising and occasionally bleak material that Jonas wrote. It's the sort of regional, sharp songwriter-driven music that doesn't shy away from telling hard stories, less concerned with the flash you normally see around Nashville and more with the message and presence. Sparsely produced, intense without being overbearing, textured and gritty without playing it as a gimmick, there's a reason why Oklahoma Lottery was one of my favourite albums of 2014, edging out some stiff competition to snag my year end list.

So you can bet in a year full of standout women in country, Karen Jonas' newest record Country Songs was definitely on my radar. Again, I wasn't sure if it was going to be a big breakthrough for her - her sort of grassroots following can be tough to translate, even if she did look to be stepping in with a lighter touch for this album - but hell, I wasn't going to miss this. So in a banner year for country music, how did Country Songs turn out?

Well, as I expected it's great, but it's also a different sort of record than Oklahoma Lottery was, not quite as filled with detail and desperation and softening some of the edges that made that album connect so strongly. If anything, I'm reminded very much of the progression that Kacey Musgraves took between Same Trailer, Different Park and Pageant Material in a fuller sound, more instrumentation, and overall a lighter approach, except Karen Jonas eschews any stabs at theatricality for rougher tones, subtlety, and the intimacy that places her closer to Whitney Rose, or perhaps even Angel Olsen.

So why do I like Country Songs more than either of their two records? Two big factors: Jonas herself and the songwriting. We'll get to the writing in a bit but I don't think Jonas gets enough credit for her delivery, and Country Songs is a prime reason as to why. In short, while she doesn't have the range of some of her contemporaries, she more than makes up for it in intensity and subtlety. Most of this record has her singing quietly or in a range that seems far more suitable for intimate bars than stadiums, all the more intensified by the closeness of the vocal pickup and layering. It's telling how she doesn't bother with overdubs and multi-tracking to intensify vocal emotion, instead placing her voice closest in the mix and relying on her delivery to convey all the emotion, every tremble and rasp and hesitant moment. And sure, her vocals can get thin on the high notes, but because of how the vocal pickup is situated in the mix - and the fact she doesn't go flat or sharp - it comes across less frail and more emotive and human. And it helps that she can walk the razor's edge between raw vulnerability and the sort of understated intensity that's all the more thrilling and seductive at such close proximity.

And here's the thing: where Oklahoma Lottery was stripped back, Country Songs doesn't shy away from a slightly more expanded band and sound. Jonas has cited her love of the Bakersfield sound and it definitely shows in the instrumentation, with lap steel, organ, and fiddle all contributing to a mix with some of the best production outside of Dave Cobb. To be briefly critical of one of my favourite producers in modern country, Cobb can occasionally add touches to the mix that can feel a little too weathered and aged in the fidelity and pickups - producer Jeff Covert and mixer Bill Wolf don't bother much with this, trusting that by simply allowing the full range of warm texture through, the approach will be quite clear. As such, when the fiddle comes through with a real bite on the title track against the liquid steel or electric guitar - especially on that lower solo - and a real bass melody, you're getting a song that is defiantly country, but lacking any of the rounded or softened edges Nashville often demands. Or take the slow burn of 'The Garden', which just a hint of reverb on the vocals, sparse drums, minor electric chords echoing over the mix against the gentle acoustic groove, and hints of very low piano to intensify that darker atmosphere, which reaches its darkest point on the distorted smoky growl of the guitar solo. And when you contrast it with the very delicate acoustics, cymbals, and trace of backing organ of 'Wasting Time' that has just an excellent electric guitar melody, or that subtle piano embellishment on the hook of 'Whiskey And Dandelions', or the very sparse acoustic groove on 'Why Don't You Stay' with the haunted electric elements playing off the fiddle at just the right time, or the deeper groove of 'The Fair Shake' with a great balanced hook, especially in the piano and organ, to the sandy snares, organ, and acoustics of 'Yankee Doodle Went Home', you have a record that might seem a tad languid at points but carries itself with enough poise and intensity to earn it. Now that's not saying there aren't moments that can feel a tad underwhelming - I kept expecting more of an edge to 'Keep Your Hands To Yourself' and 'Ophelia' than actually materialized, and 'Wandering Heart' plays to a smooth jazz vibe that Jonas might own vocally but doesn't really work match the instrumentation as well - but overall, this is the sort of country sound I can easily embrace without question.

So what about the lyrics and themes? Well, as I mentioned earlier they aren't quite as detailed as the downbeat bleakness that underscored a lot of Oklahoma Lottery, and as such they can feel a tad more conventional, for lack of better words compared to songs like 'Lucky' or 'I Never Learn' or the title track of that 2014 album. That's not saying the detail isn't here - the shoutouts to Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam definitely feel earned on the title track, and I personally liked the little Elton John interpolation on 'Whiskey And Dandelions' - but the writing doesn't quite have the same distinct texture or stories that I loved so much about that previous album. Now that's not saying the emotional intensity isn't here either - Jonas has a knack for songs like 'The Garden' and 'Why Don't You Stay' that could give most modern R&B songs a run for their money in understated sensuality, and her framing is impeccable as ever on tracks like the wistful longing of 'Wasting Time' or the genuine anger of 'Keep Your Hands To Yourself'. But what I've always liked about Karen Jonas' writing is their sense of frank, borderline blunt honesty, and she doesn't shy away or sugarcoat the depressing emotional undercurrent to songs like the title track or the lonely inevitability of cheating on 'Wandering Heart' or the blunt admissions of life's unfairness and inevitable endings on 'The Fair Shake' which she's certain she's not going to get, where the maturity of that acknowledgement does plenty for the dramatic pathos. But the song that struck me as one of her most ambitious and high concept on this album was the closer 'Yankee Doodle Went Home', taking that American country folk hero and showing him displaced, failing in the city when he tries to make his fortune, and yet with no donkey to ride home, he's stuck trying to bum rides from trucks that won't stop. It's a song that references The Grapes Of Wrath to underscore its bleakness, and you could easily extrapolate that Jonas is writing about America itself, stuck waiting for an overworked dream to come in without the talent to realize it or the patience to walk the road and get it yourself. It's a song that shows Jonas aiming for higher stakes than she ever has, and she clears it without question.

In short, while I don't think I love Country Songs as much as I did Oklahoma Lottery, it's still one hell of a listen. The clumsiness that crept into that earlier release is long gone, and Jonas showing more and more comfort with bigger sounds and ideas while still maintaining the understated emotional intensity that keeps me coming back for more. For me, it's an easy 8/10 and certainly a recommendation, yet another standout in a banner year for country. Folks, she might not have the major label backing or the tremendous hype, but Karen Jonas definitely deserves to be known beyond the regional scene in Virginia - check this out, you definitely will not regret it.

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