Thursday, June 7, 2018

album review: 'butter' by karen jonas

I'll freely admit I'm not surprised by Karen Jonas' artistic direction in indie country. That's not to disparage said direction - beginning in the hardbitten, world-weary acoustic grit of indie country to a more relaxed and lush Bakersfield sound, all coaxed through writing that's subtle enough to emphasize the details but conveyed with the intimacy and charisma to really suck the audience in, it's a natural progression as Jonas has built up steam among critics and fans alike. And it feels comfortable - I may have been won over initially by the edge, but Jonas has avoided histrionics and it makes her brand of burnished country feel impressively sensual and mature, she's got that pure magnetism.

And thus I wasn't really surprised she was picking up elements of jazz, blues, ragtime, and barroom soul for her newest project Butter, which she herself has described as her most broad to date... but I was a bit worried. Part of this is the fact that this cross-section of sounds in indie country has been pretty saturated in the 2010s, but also because Jonas is the sort of singer-songwriter who has been at her best leveraging subtlety, so I wasn't sure if going bigger and broader would pay off - and again, I'd have a wealth of comparison points in this style for when it's done right. But hey, what did we get from Butter?

So here's a funny thing: when I had gotten about four or five listens into this record, I was almost certain it was going to wind up on the Trailing Edge. Not because it was bad or mediocre - far from it, though I would make the argument that of the three full-length projects Karen Jonas has released thus far Butter has made the least impact for me - but also because I wasn't sure if I'd have enough to say, especially as I've reviewed her twice before. But then I listened through the record twice more and realized that there was enough here to call this a great record regardless, and I don't put great records on the Trailing Edge - sure, it might not be as impactful as Oklahoma Lottery, but it still stands head-and-shoulders above so much modern country indie or otherwise that it deserves the attention.

And really, I've come to the realization that many of the issues I took with this record will not be reflective of the wider audience - hell, if she was looking to win them over, I'd easily position Butter as Karen Jonas' most varied and colourful to date, and certainly steps out of her comfort zone that she approaches extremely well. Of course I was going to be most drawn to her more intimate, singer-songwriter material - warm, smoky acoustics backed up by hints of piano and organ, sandy percussion, a thick cushion of bass, and Karen Jonas herself, leaning into her extremely close vocal pickup to intensify her subtle brand of charisma. This is a formula that works wonders for her on songs like 'My Sweet Arsonist' and 'Kamikaze Love' and 'Dance With Me', especially if she steps towards touches of more smoky soul like Angel Olsen or Courtney Marie Andrews, or towards jazz like Cheryl Desere'e - but Karen Jonas has a very distinct presence compared to all three of them. She's not as naturally theatrical as Lindi Ortega, or has the vocal range to compete with Olsen or Marie Andrews, which can mean songs that require a little more feistiness and vamping like the title track don't quite feel as strident as they could, but that's also because her presentation feels more naturalistic and tempered, and while songs like 'Butter' and 'Mr. Wonka' and 'Oh Icarus' might lean towards a theatrical style with the ragtime trumpets, sleazier sax and trombome and saloon piano, Jonas can make them feel more grounded and real. A huge part of this comes in the writing - more on that in a bit - but the richer country production helps here too - the melody anchored on pedal steel and thick burnished guitar pickups that can trade off the horns for solos... hell, maybe even too thick at points, given Jonas' vocals might feel a shade too controlled against the most pronounced melodies, but that's been the case on the more upbeat traditional country cuts she's made before, and that's independent of any genre experimentation.

But I'll freely admit I come to Karen Jonas records for the songwriting as well... and here's where we hit two snags before we discuss everything else she does so right. One is that there are moments that can start to retread similar metaphors and grounds - 'Mama's First Rodeo' is a fine song but I liked it a lot more when it was called 'Lucky' on Oklahoma Lottery, and I wasn't sure how necessary it felt for similar Oz metaphors to start repeating themselves on 'Mr. Wonka' from 'Yellow Brick Road' beyond a just a callback that didn't quite gel. The more distracting issue came in lyrical cadence, specifically on some of the ragtime and jazzy songs - for as much as you can tell that Jonas is having fun with them, there are moments on 'Butter' where the lyrical flow could have rolled easier, and it probably would have helped the overall atmosphere. But then again, some of that slight clumsiness could feel intentional thematically, because the majority of this record is Karen Jonas reassessing her place in country and evaluating that step towards the flash and glamour she could embody. And I'll freely admit I was questioning this pivot in the first place given the heavier edges that characterized her previous records, but starting early Jonas is questioning it too, especially given how quickly such a path could have her lose it all in comparison with the groundswell she currently has. Oh, she'll flirt with it - the title track serves as a fine example of playful subversion of the jazzy sexpot given how much the song revolves around vintage domesticity - but her own love burns with a different brand of intensity on songs like 'Kamikaze Love' and 'Dance With Me' that doesn't fit comfortably into that sort of costume. Same with songs like 'My Sweet Arsonist', where she surveys the man and life she wound up with and while it might not be her perfect aspiration, he can burn her sorrows away as her best friend, and that's enough for her. And while she still craves touring on 'Gospel Of The Road', she's got a very frank knowledge of her limits to not get starstruck, watching burnout on 'Oh Icarus' and pushing away those who would sell her a bill of goods on 'Mr. Wonka' and 'Mama's First Rodeo'. And I really did love how this record ended with 'The Circus' - acoustic with deeper wells of guitar, piano and bass, where she doesn't like the garish industry but did chase some of those lights... and now just needs a little money to start that long trip home. I'm not sure it hits quite as hard as 'Yankee Doodle Went Home' off her last record, but considering how much more of this record seems to tie into a more personal narrative, it still clicks.

So in short, I really liked Butter, even if I'm not quite sure it hits me as strongly as her first two albums. It feels a bit short and underwritten at points, and I'm not always certain the experimentation completely lands, but the writing is great, she still has some of the most distinct and effective production in indie country, and Jonas is still one hell of a performer who shows a lot of comfort with these stylistic detours. And I do think 'detour' is the word here - I'm not sure Karen Jonas will stay with this sound on her next release, so much as tasting it to find out how much she likes. But for me, this is a light 8/10 and definitely recommended if you're into smart, straightforward indie country that goes down really smooth - definitely check this out!

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