American Roots UK - 3.7.17
I always look for the positives in the huge amount of music I listen to, despite positivity sometimes being something that can be a struggle to find very much of. From the very first listen this superb recording struck me as being something very, very special, a feeling that continues to grow, with Karen having that rare ability to create so much more with her tremendous songs and vocal nuances than most others can ever hope to achieve with all of Nashville's resources.
Some of the songs on this, Karen's sophomore album 'Country Songs,' have a brooding, slightly disquieting atmosphere, or perhaps that should read as having a realistic sense of drama. This is partly due to the arrangement of instruments but predominately down to the control and immersion of Karen's vocals in her tremendous stories. At times she exhibits a soft, vulnerable sensitivity and at others a sparky, perhaps even fiery, strength of character that defies anyone to mess with her, whilst the centre ground leads the way for the 'country pop,' that inhabits the charts, to follow in her wake. This recording alone is proof beyond doubt that if you have the talent it is possible to make edgy highly individual country music that appeals to lovers of the outer boundaries of country music whilst having the gorgeous melodicism that should and in all probability will appeal to followers of the mainstream.
Stylistically, this album includes what has become known as 'classic country;' that is the style made famous in the 1950s and 60s, but whereas much of that was smooth and sanitized Karen has replaced that smoothness with a lovely edgy sound that includes only the necessary instrumentation and no orchestral string sections, all of which would have pushed her beautiful vocals deeper into the mix and probably eased the album down into the pack. There is also the sound of Bakersfield 'honky tonks' a similar style but one that started off without any smooth edges and continues that way to this day. This is where her beautiful 'sassy' voice comes to the fore and there is always a detectable note of alt. country, virtually indefinable but there none the less. When we get to the albums ballads, all I can really say is that there are no finer female balladeers than Karen, with her ability to switch between a powerful sassiness and a hugely appealing vulnerability providing the icing on the cake of her incredible vocal dexterity.
These twelve beautifully written and performed songs are built upon the foundation of the sublime lead guitar playing and the varied textures found within, of Tim Bray. The most powerful and dominant instrument on the album, with the exception of Karen's vocals, but part of the man's incredible skill is his ability to know when to hold back and when to drive his sound on and make tonal changes. Whilst I think Karen could have made a great album without Tim's work, he is certainly another vital layer of icing on the cake, knowing instinctively when to stick and when to go for it on an album that includes some great playing from all concerned.
There is plenty of twangy electric guitar, percussion, bass, steel guitar and fiddle, no big over blown production, just the beautiful vocals and a fairly sparse instrumentation, although perhaps 'uncluttered' would be a better description of a production that only includes whatever is necessary to get the best out of each song rather than anything that follows a contemporary pattern. The atmosphere created is such that a big production couldn't even get close to matching what can be heard here as the contemporaneous all disappear into the oblivion of the country formula.
Album opener and title track, Country songs is a perfect summation of what is to follow. Tim's twangy guitar along with the fiddle, bass, steel guitar and a little percussion get a contemporary country song off to an excellent 'honky tonk' start but when Karen's, beautiful, hugely evocative vocal comes in you just know this is going to be something special. It really is the ideal opener because its title alone lets you know what is going to follow, although this is no mere 'country album' but an album of 'real country music' with all of the variety of qualities that title entails. Karen's vocal contains power, dynamism, raunchiness, vulnerability and tenderness all in the space of just five beautiful minutes, in other words a perfect start. It is followed by Keep your hands to yourself, hard driving country at its best, with Tim Bray's dynamic guitar playing soon joined by Karen's sassy vocal on a break up song on which she is anything but a helpless victim. The bass and percussion drive things along with occasional steel guitar but the dominant instrument, apart from Karen's beautiful vocals, is Tim's tremendous guitar sound. Final mention has to be of one of the beautiful ballads, Wasting time, with percussion providing the intro along with Karen's vocal, soon joined by keyboards and guitar on a slow moody tale on which her voice ranges between a breathy gentle tone to a much more fiery sound as befits the depth of the conversation being portrayed. The lovely weeping steel guitar deepens the emotional atmosphere as the arrangement gradually becomes more dense eventually bringing the song to its conclusion.
'Country' music albums really don't get much better than this stunning recording. Everything about it oozes quality of the highest order and Karen Jonas is a completely unique singer songwriter for whom super stardom surely beckons. She is a lady who as a vocalist is a match and then some for anyone out there, her songs are excellent and the arrangements and production really couldn't be improved upon. If there is even a miniscule fault in this or, for that matter, her debut album, I've yet to find it and I don't suppose anyone else has or will either! 'Country Songs' is a stunning album of great beauty and dynamism that tugs the emotions to just about every point of the compass!