Women named Karen have been getting a bad rep in popular culture lately. But this one isn’t a 47-year-old with a bad attitude and bob haircut dressing down the manager of her local Olive Garden for screwing up her endless pasta order. This is Fredericksburg, Virginia’s favorite local singer/songwriter and nightlife staple that has been wooing listeners across the country and world ever since releasing her debut solo album Oklahoma Lottery.
Well past the time when she should be resting comfortably off of royalties and regaled by popular media, Karen Jonas continues to trek a hard road for worthy attention while juggling kids and keeping a home, yet continues to churn out songs the road warriors and media darlings and mainstream acts in music would love to have credits on. It’s her mix of local charm, international appeal, and dogged persistence that makes Karen Jonas such a great discovery and a worthy artist to hitch your fandom to.
Her latest album The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams is an imaginative and inspired work of involved stories and finely-woven songwriting, with intermissions of enjoyable romps through country and roots escapism. Influenced from treks through desert California and West Texas, it gives rise to characters and scenarios so present and palpable in your mind’s eye, you can touch and smell them.
It’s the Karen Jonas magic that allows you to lose yourself in song, like the superb development of character and setting that makes the “The Last Cowboy (At The Bowling Alley)” feel like he’s standing right there in front of you with his crooked cowboy hat and sweating Budweiser bottle. We all know this character, even if we’ve never met him. And we know the bowling alley he haunts, and the town it’s in. It’s an indelible part of the American psyche that Karen Jonas discovers and reminds us of.
Seductively diverse, the simple fun of songs like “Pink Leather Boots” and “Be Sweet To Me” are easy to pick out of the crowd as early favorites your first listen through. But you’ll wear out the repeat button on much more involved and moving moments. “Maybe You’d Hear Me Then” with the gentle cries coming from the steel guitar coloring the audible screams muffled inside one’s own mind gives musical illustration to the quiet desperation so many of us suffer from.
The finer points of “Farmer John” could be debated for centuries to come. Is it a murder ballad? A song about infidelity? Neither or both? The quiet rage, the passive aggressiveness playing out in the mind of the characters is what makes these songs so relatable to so many of us, while the interwoven wordplay is something to behold all its own. It’s such a literary approach to song. Karen Jonas wrings every drop of aching emotion out of moments via her signature ability to inject tremendous amounts of tension. It’s like a suspense thriller brought to song with vivid imagery usually reserved for visual mediums.
From honky-tonk country, sultry rockabilly, to genteel Americana, Jonas moves dexterously between them, aided by her right hand man, guitar player Tim Bray, who can bring whatever mood might be necessary to a song with chameleon-like acuity. Still, there’s certain moments and songs on The Southwest Sky that could have used a bit more polishing, or a distinguishing ear—a little too much breath in the microphone here, or too many cymbal crashes in a row there. It’s a little wonky in moments. But Jonas—who could be accused of oversinging on certain previous projects—gets it dialed in pretty right on this one.
Meanwhile the songcraft she brings to The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams is what you’re left most spellbound by. Though the American Southwest might have been her muse, and the stories are told through a diverse set of characters, they all symbolize parts of personalities lurking inside all of us, no matter where we are, giving words and voice to our most personal moments we often find so hard to vocalize ourselves.
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