Album Review – Karen Jonas’ ‘Country Songs’

Author: Leon Blair

So I’ve stated before how 2014 was a very important year for me as a music listener. If 2010 was the year that I got into country in general, 2014 was the year that I really dug into the underground scene. Those were the days when I had a new awesome act thrown at me every second for my listening pleasure. Needless to say I absolutely loved it. Now, there were a lot of high profile names (at least at that time in the underground scene) that released some truly excellent albums that year including Sturgill Simpson, Don Williams, Old Crow Medicine Show and many more.

However, there was one person during that year who released an album that not only stood toe to toe with the absolute best, but did it all on just her debut album. I’m of course talking about Karen Jonas, and her album, Oklahoma Lottery, an album that I actually didn’t even get to hear until last year. Let me tell you folks, that praise was certainly well earned, especially for Jonas’ deep, complex and most importantly nuanced lyricism. Then you have the fact that her voice carried so much emotion to really sell those songs, and you have a shining example of why she accumulated all of that praise in the first place.

So as such, I was extremely happy when I learned that she was releasing her sophomore album, Country Songs this month. After all, I was but a mere student of the underground scene in 2014, and while I won’t say I’m a master at this reviewing thing yet (or even close), I still really wanted to talk about this album. So how is Country Songs anyway?

Well, I’m happy to report that Country Songs is definitely a great album and certainly a worthy follow-up to Oklahoma Lottery. Is it as good as that album was? Well, it’s hard to say. Country Songs certainly has the same foundation that Oklahoma Lottery had, but there’s also a few changes made that, for the most part, really fit well with Karen’s style. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, what is Country Songs all about anyway?

Well, the easiest place to start here would be the instrumentation and production. Country Songs very much follows the same formula that Oklahoma Lottery had of incorporating less instrumentation in favor of an increased emphasis on say, the songwriting or vocals. Hey, when the formula works that damn well, why change it? Now, that doesn’t mean you’re hearing the exact same album here. Country Songs does a little bit more to add a little more meat to the production in a way that I wish a lot of country albums did this year. That fiddle line on the title track is filled with a lot of texture, and the choice to use softer percussion on “Wasting Time” is just so damn excellent. That’s not even to mention the fact that the song is able to incorporate a rip-roaring guitar solo and still make it feel essential to the song’s intensity. Of course, nowhere is the mood set better than on “The Garden”. It’s ghostly and ominous in a way that provides more of an alluring atmosphere more so than one that’s say, sinister or malicious. The pedal steel in this song is absolutely gorgeous, and much like “Wasting Time”, that song is also able to incorporate a hard edge guitar solo to accentuate the mood in a way that feels cohesive to the rest of the song.

Now, if I were to nitpick with this element at all, I would say that not every song here is able to stick the landing as well it could have. The story behind “Keep Your Hands To Yourself” insinuates an angry tone, yet the bedrock of the track is an upbeat rockabilly vibe. Not a bad song by any means, not even close. It just feels a little out of place. The same can be said for “Wondering Heart” which really feels like the one track on this album that could have used an extra kick in the sound to really highlight the mood of the song.

While we have the thought of emotional intensity stuck in our heads, let’s turn towards Karen Jonas herself. Keep in mind, she’s not a bad singer by any means and is actually quite good. However, I think we really need to focus on Karen’s delivery and emotional intensity when it comes to the vocals on this album. She almost makes it seem so effortless the way she conveys so many of these songs with a rare type of nuance that’s in a sense all her own. That sense of emotional intensity is extremely evident on the slower songs on this album such as “The Garden”, “Wasting Time”, and “Why Don’t You Stay” where she’s able to sell the melancholy tones almost perfectly. Then you have “Yankee Doodle Went Home” which she almost seems both tongue in cheek as well as sad the way that this American folk hero has given up his dreams and headed home.

Of course, that story should be explained in more detail in the section that I’ve been wanting to talk about forever, the songwriting. Now, I’m sure that many people may knock the songwriting for not exploring as many dark themes as her debut album did. That’s a fair point, but I would also argue that the songwriting is just as good as it was on her debut. Where Oklahoma Lottery opted for darker story songs, Country Songs is a little more light-hearted (using that term extremely loosely) and in a sense, even more personal. In other words, the fire is still there, just from a different perspective.

That perspective can be seen on the personal title track where Karen tells the listeners how she got into country songs as well as how she didn’t even used to like them. It wasn’t until she started experiencing the emotions that country songs convey that she started liking them. You can really tell it’s coming from an honest and personal place here, and that’s why even the namedrops of legends like Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens feel genuine. Or take “Whiskey and Dandelions” where she acknowledges that yeah, she’d like to live the high life, but she’s also content with where she is. If anything, you can read it as a metaphor for being happy gathering critical acclaim for albums such as these rather than notching number one singles on the charts.

On that note of extended metaphors however, we have the final two tracks, “The Fairshake” and “Yankee Doodle Went Home”. The former sort of leads into the latter with its talk of not always getting what you think you deserve. Then you have “Yankee Doodle Went Home” which portrays the folk icon as giving up and heading on in, realizing that not everything has a happy ending. While the choice to use that particular icon is admittedly a little strange, I liked how Karen incorporated modern examples of Yankee Doodle giving up his horse in favor of a Ford and heading up to New York. Moreover, however, much like “Whiskey and Dandelions”, it can be seen as an extended metaphor for singers trying to make it big in say, Nashville or Texas or wherever you want to be. You can put in the effort and have good intentions, but it doesn’t always mean the goal will be attained and that’s why I like the creative writing of a track like this.

Of course, when it comes to songwriting I’d be remiss not to once again talk about the darker ballads on this album. “The Garden” is a song where I swear there’s an underlying meaning that I’m not getting. On the surface, it’s about a narrator recalling a passionate night she once had with her lover twenty years ago, but there’s so much more going on in the imagery. I’m not knocking this though. Actually, I like the mysterious feel of the song, and coupled with the fantastic production and vocals, this song is easily the album highlight.

Oddly enough, I didn’t really think Karen pulled off the love songs on her debut album as well as I thought she could have, but then I heard “Wasting Time” and I knew those criticisms had kind of went away. There’s a desperation to this track as the narrator acknowledges that she’s wasting time by holding on to this lost love that she has, but at the same time she can’t help it. The vocals also really do a lot to sell this song and it connects wonderfully. Again, the framing of this song is definitely a highlight, but that’s something I can say about a lot of these songs in general.

In short, Country Songs is definitely another strong album from Karen Jonas. The highs might not be as high as they were on Oklahoma Lottery, but as an album I feel like Country Songs is definitely the more cohesive album. There’s a lot of fantastic songwriting, great vocal performances, and gorgeous production here. I will say that it’s a grower of an album, and after six listens through I continue to find more to enjoy with this album. Even the tracks I don’t care a lot for such as “Ophelia” or “Wandering Heart” aren’t necessarily bad, they just don’t stand up to the rest of the project. Karen Jonas might not get the attention that she deserves for this project, but she’s proof of how talent will always shine through to find the ears of listeners.

(8/10)

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