Album Review – “Country Songs” by Karen Jonas
From Fredericksburg, Virginia, songwriter and performer Karen Jonas stunned those few lucky music listeners who paid attention to her debut album Oklahoma Lottery when she independently released it in 2014. The album evidenced bouts of brilliant songwriting, and showcased her unique style of guitar playing and strong vocal aptitudes. But most importantly it announced her as an artist that would undoubtedly have many more albums and songs to share in a promising and hopefully productive future. She was an artist you could immediately etch into your list of new favorites, and if Oklahoma Lottery was the foundation to build from, who knows where it could go from there.
It’s within this anticipation that her sophomore effort Country Songs comes spilling out of her songwriting pen just as fervent and hungry as her first effort, yet with more refined and deliberate results due to the wisdom won through the experience of her debut.
Karen Jonas does not boast a stereotypical country music songwriter back story, where she can cite being reared on Waylon Jennings or George Strait, or say how her years on a ranch instilled her with an undying passion for rural sounds and themes. Yet instead of this becoming an anchor on her country cred, through her honesty Karen discovered the theme of this record, and specifically the theme for the title track that embodies the classic heartache that regardless of who you are or where you’re from, country music is the best cure for.
And not only can Karen Jonas sing about heartbreak, she can sing to it through her own experiences and ability to articulate it through her elevated instincts in songwriting. Young Southern boys in their dirty jeans and pickup trucks may have plenty of grime under their fingernails, but many have never had their heart broke in the the manner that makes Karen Jonas not just uniquely qualified, but creatively gifted to share that emotion through song.
Karen Jonas is a case of an unbridled heart that has just enough self-awareness to know its out of control, but at many turns still seems powerless to do anything about it. The upbeat and reckless “Ophelia” could be couched as Karen giving advice to another, or emphasizing truths she knows to herself, but seems to be powerless to heed.
Beyond the title track, Country Songs finds its best offering with the heartbreaking “Wasting Time.” In a just world, a song this well-crafted and immediately classic would be picked up by a bigger artist and made into a super hit. But in lieu of this, it will be something those patient enough to listen will find rivaling any other for one of the best of the year, even if it veers off the country page towards a more contemporary arrangement. “Whiskey and Dandelions” is another well-written and more traditionally country-themed tune, while a couple of the sleeper tracks of the album come near the end, including “The Fair Shake” that creeps up on you to expose the smart, compositional side of Karen’s songwriting, as does the final track, the silly but richly sad “Yankee Doodle Went Home.”
Where Country Songs lacks a little bit is in the production of this record. There’s nothing wrong with it, but that’s almost part of the problem. There’s just not really a fingerprint or signature to the sound, despite an excellent effort by Karen’s guitar player and right hand man, Tim Bray. Karen’s first record may have come with a flub or two, but it had a roguishness and a raw nature that made it not just compelling in what the material said, but cool in how it conveyed it all. Some may even go as far to say Country Songs, despite the title, is a little popish in places, even if acknowledging the other positive aspects about the songs and music.
In spite of the progress made in independent country and even mainstream country in the last couple of years since Karen Jonas’s debut to shine a brighter light on the better talent going overlooked in the industry—especially artists who have such promise for future output—there are still holes in the filter where artists like Karen Jonas fall through. Karen’s songwriting is strong enough to deserve a top-level producer and independent industry support. Hopefully Country Songs is the vehicle to help her find that.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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Purchase Country Songs from Karen Jonas
October 20, 2016 @ 9:38 am
At the end of the day (for me) making good country music comes down to honest lyrics, storytelling, & a love of the sounds of country music. If you’re Lady Gaga, or from NYC, or from a farm in Georgia. This album is further proof of that fact. Karen Jones loves country music, and it doesn’t matter that she didn’t grow up on a farm.
(the converse of course is Sam Hunt, how much better would country be if we didn’t have the rural southern white male rubber stamp)
Fat Freddy's Cat
October 20, 2016 @ 10:24 am
I don’t know that I agree with you on the production, although I have to admit up front that I know nothing about sound engineering. I think my perspective just comes from having been to a lot of her live shows; I find that this recording captures a lot of the energy and feel of the shows, and that’s a plus for me.
October 20, 2016 @ 11:40 am
The vocals feel, and sound, very disconnected from the music. It’s distracting to me, to the point where I just don’t like the album at all. Part of it is the way she sings on the album with this wavy and wafting sound, that has moments that border on yodeling, but its made worse by the audio engineering. It is demanding balancing of the vocal tracks with the music to bring them more line, while fixing some of the EQing.
On Oklahoma Lottery, these issues aren’t present.
I was so stoked for this album, and the first 10s of the opening title track got me amped, but it was just distracting and painful to listen to.
October 20, 2016 @ 11:35 am
Karen, Jamie and Tami are the artist I love most of the ones I’ve been introduced to on this site.
And what I love most about them are just that rough singing you were talking about and they’re not afraid to really sing out.
But I there is one thing that worries me and that’s “Wasting Time” I hope it isn’t characteristic for the rest of the record. As so many times before I don’t like the accompaniment, I feel like it following some sort of a standard Pop Country template. That guitar solo for example why?. I dont wanna be negativ but for me is Country a lyric driven genre. And the song and the singing should be in center of it.
But I love the song “Country Songs”. Both the lyrics and her singing…
October 20, 2016 @ 6:23 pm
I love Karen Jonas. Been waiting for this release for most of the year it seems – not a disappointment whatsoever. And I love the solo in Wasting Time. I think Tim Bray is freaking outstanding and I love his tone.
October 20, 2016 @ 6:41 pm
Haven’t listened to the whole album yet, but I like what I hear so far!
October 20, 2016 @ 7:31 pm
So many female singers sound just like this. It sounds almost like a speech impediment or something sour is in their mouth. I can’t describe it, but I can’t stand it.
October 21, 2016 @ 8:05 am
As soon as I listened to the song Wasting Time I was SOLD! I played it for a coworker telling her “Isn’t this song ME!” I feel as if Karen Jonas looked into my soul and wrote this song. You can sense the loneliness and longing in her controlled vibrato and the twang of the guitar. Country Songs takes some of the same lost love but with a different sound evoking a different mood. I see it as almost tongue and cheek saying “thanks for teaching me a lesson in heartbreak” to the guy who broke your heart. Lord knows I have had my heartbroken enough to appreciate Country Songs!! Karen Jonas’ sound is reminiscent of the country of my Mother’s days. It is the heartfelt and pure country not the pop or for lack of a better word, sassy, country of most mainstream country.
October 21, 2016 @ 2:38 pm
I like this one a lot.
October 21, 2016 @ 3:40 pm
Karen Jonas is the real deal. I have listened to this album straight through several times, and feel it every time. Karen takes us on her journey of heartbreak and soul searching, with a dose of humor and spunk (Ophelia!) This is country music that is heartfelt, intelligent and relatable. Karen uses her voice to evoke emotion that is authentic and moving, bringing us right along with her. Love it!
October 22, 2016 @ 4:30 pm
Pretty great songwriting throughout, but apart from “Whiskey and dandelions,” I can’t get past her vocal quality. Someone above referred to it as wavy and wafty, and I get that exactly. I find it very distracting. However, I can see why those that love her do; it’s just nnot for me.
October 22, 2016 @ 4:40 pm
October 22, 2016 @ 9:00 pm
When not playing the new Dale Watson “Under the Influence”, I have also been enjoying Karen’s new album along with Paul Cauthan’s “My Gospel” LP released this week. Karen and Paul’s albums are very good and both artists have promising careers ahead. Glad to have so much new quality country music!
October 27, 2016 @ 9:37 am
I think this is another fine album from Karen Jonas. Right now, I’d say it’s in my top five for 2016. I don’t quite related to the criticisms of the production, but whatever. I have heard of Bill Wolf, who gets “mastering” credit, which I guess is post-production? I think he’s well known in the bluegrass recording world and I have seen him in the credits of some Seldom Scene,Tony Rice, and Del McCoury albums that I have, and probably others. I know he used to be the sound guy at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA. Don’t think he does that anymore.
HITS In The Sticks
November 2, 2016 @ 12:54 pm
Nice article about Karen Jonas. She is an engaging artist. As for the article, do you think she is going to find the support that she needs to develop a successful career?