Album Review – Katie Jo’s “Pawn Shop Queen”

photo: Avion Photography

Whether it’s rural dwellers hiding from the increasingly urbanized and automated world, those that feel like prisoners in their own time as if they were born 50 years too late, or the war torn from the rigors of heartbreak and bad luck in life, one of country music’s greatest virtues is it offers a haven for these forgotten and forlorn souls. The sounds made by human fingers impressed on wood on wire, the wailing of the steel guitar, this is what feels familiar and comforting to these broken humans. This is what sounds like home.

Originally from Wichita, Kansas and now residing in L.A., Katie Jo can speak to these refugees of modern society with her Midwest authenticity mixed with a style sense influenced from the Bakersfield Sound, rockabilly, and classic country. What this results in is a both fun and moving work called Pawn Shop Queen, inspired sharply by Katie’s own real world struggles, and in a way that speaks to the damaged nature of us all.

Assisting her in this effort was producer Chris Schlarb in Los Angeles. Setting Katie Jo’s original songs amid the tic-tac rhythms of classic country and rockabilly, and the moan of the steel guitar set so far away it sounds like it’s being played in Arizona, it all conspires to evoke that Route 66, early 60’s country vibe that sits just right in the vessels of old souls. This throwback sound is somewhat easy to try and emulate since it’s so lo-fi, but extremely difficult to perfect in this capacity where the tracks actually sound similar to those old beloved recordings.

But what Katie Jo is not interested in trying to recreate is the simple and stuffy “aw shucks” lyricism at the heart of some of classic country’s style, and instead turns to her own biography for lyrical inspiration. Along with country music’s common themes of heartache and rejection, the harrowing moments of Katie Jo’s life when she was informed by a doctor that she would likely never have kids, then ended up pregnant, and then medically had to terminate the pregnancy which led to further complications results in critical assessments of self-worth that result in the moodiness of this work.

At times the music may be fun and bouncy, but the subject matter in spots is anything but. Where some hipster throwback country projects may get the sound right and result in an elbow-swinging good ol’ time, that’s fun for a stint, but gets put away quickly and soon forgotten. Katie Jo has something to say that sticks in your mind, while the melodies and interesting song structures she brings to certain songs haunt you keenly after hearing them, especially the title track.

One of the things holding Pawn Shop Queen back somewhat may be how they took only three days to record it. Though this partly results in sort of the homespun nature of the album that helps lend to the vintage sound where a flub here or there reminds you that humans actually played this music, you ultimately just want a little bit more from Katie Jo herself, both in some stronger performances that perhaps needed additional takes, and her being heavier in the mix where the lyrics aren’t so hard to comprehend, especially since they’re so vital to the artistic expression of this work.

Make no mistake though, if you’re looking for those country songs that feel like they speak to you specifically as a refugee of the modern era as opposed to stamped out with platitudes for the masses, Katie Jo and Pawn Shop Queen is a sure bet. It’s one of those vintage classic country records made to sound old, but one with things to say that are pertinent and resonant as ever.

7.5/10

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