A year ago, Karen Jonas released her fourth album Lucky, Revisited, a reinterpretation of some of her best known songs. Confirming her roots in classic country Jonas showed she is equally at home whether in a folkier Americana style or sultry blues. So the big question was, which direction will she take next? The clue lies in the title of her recently released fifth album The Southwestern Sky and Other Dreams. Taking the vast American southwest as her setting, Jonas presents a series of stories that contrast that physical emptiness with the personal claustrophobia of a small town existence. Through deep and atmospheric descriptions of people and places, Jonas explores the constant struggle between abject disillusion and rare glimpses of opportunity both real and imagined. Already Jonas has set high standards, but The Southwestern Sky and Other Dreams is definitely her best yet.
Jonas’s incessant touring since her debut six years ago often shows up in the live feel of her records. Now with a more settled band around long-time guitarist Tim Bray, Jonas pushes her musical boundaries to match the album’s title. Unsurprisingly, honky tonk, swing and rockabilly dominate but Jonas also adds her stylish Americana to the mix.
Mention the southwest and cowboys cannot be far away. Jonas does not disappoint, but hers isn’t Roy Rogers but someone who has definitely seen better days. The sorrowful Tex-Mex opening to ‘The Last Cowboy (at the Bowling Alley)’ sets the scene. “He was the king of the yucca valley/ Now he’s just the last cowboy at the bowling alley”. In a voice to match the pathos, Jonas nevertheless conveys sympathy for her lonesome cowboy.
That first character deserves compassion but ‘Farmer John’ does not. A menacing bluesy rhythm is the backdrop for someone “too fond of his whiskey and little bags of stuff he bought from cousin Isaac”. His wife cuts a desperate figure never able to carry out her threat to leave her monster of a husband.
The upbeat pace of ‘Tuesday’ belies the tragedy of missed opportunity. Friend Bobby followed his dream and “made the big time” while she stayed at home where “I’ve been drinking like a sailor” and “I think Tuesday’s probably a wash, folks”. The detail only opens the wounds further. Jonas admits that after selecting her characters, she lives with them to work out every minute detail of their character. It shows.
That precision extends to places too. ‘Out in Palm Tree Paradise’ is anything but. To weeping guitars, electric and pedal steel, Jonas looks back on lost love under the unending Mojave desert sky. ‘Barely Breathing’ ties the desolate desert to a relationship that is similarly void. ‘Better Days’ plunges further into the abyss with no answer to “where are my better days?”
‘Maybe You’d Hear Me Then’ brings that sense of entrapment to boiling point by combining people and place. Her band weaves around her plea of “working some nine-to-five/making plans for some better life/the southwest sky and other dreams you’ll never find” until she breaks out into a scream of anguish. That contrast of claustrophobia in such immense space is a recurring and intense theme of the record.
It is not all acceptance as the defiant rockabilly of ‘Be Sweet to Me’ is not so much a request but a threat. But throughout Jonas never seems to give up that eternal search for a release from all this misery. And however expertly she dissects the pain of love, she does not wallow in self pity as she leaves us with a glimmer of hope in ‘Don’t Blink Honey’. With more mournful pedal steel Jonas whispers that no matter how much you get slapped down never give up, “the world keeps turning and you’ll miss something/ and there’s no time to waste”.
The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams confirms Karen Jonas as one of the finest country artists around today. Her first class band work the arrangements perfectly, enhancing her vigorous writing while she sings with a touch that goes straight back to Patsy Cline. It may only be September, but this has to be one of the albums of the year.