Album Review: Karen Jonas, The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams

Karen Jonas

The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams

Here’s how the opening conversations surrounding Karen Jonas’ art usually start: critics will either remark upon her vocal tone, capable of pulling off a weathered bitterness that adds humanity to her best work, or her stylistic diversity and how, really, she hasn’t made the same album twice.

Which, granted, are valid starting points, but what’s gotten lost in the conversation over the years, at least to me, is Jonas’ songwriting capabilities. With her best work, she frames her stories and characters with a sense of dramatic urgency and desperateness that adds a weight and empathy – as the best songwriters often do – but also a healthy dose of blunt honesty to keep it grounded and never cast moral judgment either way.

And I’ll be honest, while the shift in tones toward the Bakersfield sound on 2016’s Country Songs and the incorporation of jazz and ragtime elements on 2018’s Butter did win me over, the sonic expansion toward dusty, California-inspired country music ahead of her newest album, The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams – more along the lines of ‘70s country-rock with some Marty Robbins thrown in, more than outright Bakersfield this time around – isn’t what caught my attention prior to its release. Instead, the reported larger focus on storytelling inspired by her observations while out on the road is what caught my attention most, especially when the darker edges of her debut, Oklahoma Lottery, still make that album my favorite in her discography.

And while, again, I did enjoy the shift in tone on Butter, The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams is somewhat of a welcome return to form in just about every capacity, highlighting that bigger focus on storytelling indeed with a darker, western-inspired backdrop. Given, too, how opener “The Last Cowboy (at the Bowling Alley)” was outright inspired by a chance observation of Orville Peck in the titular setting, I can hear the influence in the liquid guitar tones and heavier reliance on atmosphere, especially on “Barely Breathing.”

But Jonas’ take on the sound is of a more organic variety. Her instrumentation has always been solid, with the well-picked acoustics providing a great balance for a selection of cohesive guitar tones, percussion, and well-balanced bass. There’s always been a grit to her work no matter the actual sonic palette, and that works for crafting the darker edges of this album that Jonas hasn’t crafted this well in quite a while. Plus, while she’s never been outright theatrical in her presentation, she’s always known how to balance her performances. As such, when the Spanish-flavored acoustics kick off “The Last Cowboy (at the Bowling Alley),” or when the rollicking electric guitar provides a nice crunch to “Tuesday,” you’re getting an album clearly inspired by those western overtones, but without the unneeded bombast that can sometimes characterize modern incarnations of those works. Granted, I’d argue the western influence is more philosophical than anything else – more on that when we delve into the content – so the mix often feels natural for Jonas’ previously established harder-edged country sound, with plenty of subtly great moments to appreciate: the dusty, almost surf-rock groove of the bass that kicks in on the seedier “Pink Leather Boots,” the liquid, glistening guitar tones that subtly pick up in intensity on “Maybe You’d Hear Me Then,” or the nasty, slow-creaking bass and rickety percussion anchoring the murder ballad “Farmer John,” just to offer a few examples.

Of course, Jonas always contrasts those darker, heavier moments with brighter spots to provide temporary relief and levity; one needs to with these sort of projects. But to be honest, given how Jonas’ bigger, more dramatic moments are usually my favorites, I’m glad they comprise the majority of this project this time around. “Tuesday” provides a sly wit and self-deprecating angle to the humor that helps it fit in well with the thematic arc, but the cutesy “Be Sweet To Me” is a moment that feels really out of character for this album, especially when it’s sandwiched between the two best tracks. And I’ll also say I appreciated the hard-bitten frustration and admittance of grief and anguish of “Better Days” as a final track more than I did the abrupt, aspirational tone of “Don’t Blink Honey” that didn’t quite end this album on the best note.

On the note of anguish and frustration, though, Jonas herself has always been worth the conversation for her effective grasp of tone. She’s never carried an expressive range, but she’s always made up for it in subtlety and intensity. So while, here, she’s placed at the front of the mix, she’s often singing quietly in a range that greatly suits the weathered, Sisyphean nature of the content, and by letting her delivery often do all of the heavy lifting, it’s more emotive and human. Plus, the fact that she’s got a great sense of humor to balance out her work makes a lot of these moments come across effectively, from observing from afar a used-up cowboy in the opening track and how the other characters treat him to sticking mostly in her lower range on “Tuesday” to sell that mix of self-deprecating humor and weary resignation.

Of course, it’s the moments that aim for higher dramatic stakes that show her in prime form. I do find there to be a stridency and dramatic sense of urgency missing from the writing and tones in “Out In Palm Tree Paradise,” but that straightforward balance is also the point – finding Jonas neither sad nor bitter that the relationship in this situation ended the way it did, but still finding herself reflecting on the happier moments as she embarks on her own self-reflective journey, and hoping he does sometimes, too. But contrast that with “Maybe You’d Hear Me Then,” where her anger and frustration truly comes to blows and only picks up more flair as it develops, and the best moment boils down to either that or “Farmer John,” where her frustrations with her assumed unfaithful husband continuously test her patience, caught somewhere between polite and explosive in the best possible way. And while not necessarily a mood record, given how “Barely Breathing” is more of a darker insight into her mental anguish, it’s the sort of one-off moment I wouldn’t have minded hearing more of here.

But it all circles back to the content, which is where I’d argue the thematic arc is intentionally only loosely connected to its southwestern appeal. Really, it’s clear how it shapes the larger themes of this album – where the grand appeal of being a lone traveler in the open west looking to find themselves isn’t as grand as it’s made out to be, and where, ultimately, the focus is on the larger misspent expectations these characters face in crafting their own journeys. The thing is, it’s morally complex, too, never casting judgment on these characters nor even framing their journeys as all that equal, even if they ultimately find themselves in the same place. Take the titular character in “The Last Cowboy (at the Bowling Alley),” who had his big moment in the spotlight but now finds himself stuck wanting to relive the moments he can’t get back. Leave it to Jonas, too, to not go for the obvious setting of a bar to drown his sorrows, but a regular bowling alley, if only to better draw out the realness and mundanity of this character’s schedule and how no one else there recognizes him for who he was. It’s not so much a warning to not bother chasing those dreams to begin with, so much as it is a sad note of caution to question what you’ll really end up with in the end. Question what you’re even really searching for to begin with, in other words.

And it’s worth noting how that particular character is the only one here to experience any brief moment of happiness. If anything, any anger these characters face is directed most at themselves for their own choices made, like how the character had her chance to leave but ended up staying on “Tuesday,” and is now forced to bear and grin it, finding herself in the same never-ending cycle of lonely bitterness and despair that the aforementioned cowboy also faces.

In other words, the western theme is more of a mindset than a provider for an actual setting in which these stories take place. “Maybe You’d Hear Me Then,” for example, is a really sad look at an imploding marriage that’s general enough to work in any capacity, but is lent a real humanity through Jonas’ artistic framing, which further adds a real sense of vulnerability and added weight to her material. A dream of a different variety always seems to die here, and it’s a bleak, uncompromising angle that few songwriters would dare approach. It’s why “Farmer John” works, even if the details are always presumptuous and the wife in this situation never has any hard evidence of her husband’s infidelity. There’s enough added weight in the performance and slow-burn of the instrumentation to reflect a heftier subtext that does most of the heavy lifting anyway. It’s fantasy that feels real.

In short, while Jonas has maintained a consistency that’s made all of her work great thus far, The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams carries a greater amount of dramatic weight and sharper refinement to the songwriting and tone that’s among her best in years. And even if these characters don’t find closure so much as wishing for “Better Days” on the penultimate track, there’s enough optimism reflected in that song without shying away from the harsher realities and uphill battles they face. Sad as it is, too, it’s a journey well worth embarking on for ourselves, if only to help offer us a better look at ourselves.

Recommended tracks: “Maybe You’d Hear Me Then,” “Farmer John,” “Barely Breathing”

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