Karen Jonas’ fifth album really steps up to the plate in terms of song writing and delivery. It’s the album she’s been promising to make for some time, building on the many delights contained in her previous releases but here, Jonas, the songs and the band, all conspire to create a wonderful noise.
As the title hints at, Jonas, from Virginia, is surveying the great southwest – the deserts and dusty towns, faded dreams and lurid fantasies. Some of the songs are personal, based on her memories of travelling around the Mojave Desert, others are based on sketches of characters and places glimpsed as Jonas toured across Texas. As might be expected, it’s an eclectic mix with neon rouged bars, bowling alleys and domestic drudgery all featuring and Jonas and her band conveying the essence of the places visited with an equally eclectic mix of sounds ranging from country to rockabilly and honky tonk. At the epicentre, Jonas is impressive, her voice quite wonderful.
The album opens with the note perfect portrait of a fading lothario, sustained by memories of seventies glory but now just The Last Cowboy (at The Bowling Alley). With its wonderful Tex-Mex country delivery adorned with sweet pedal steel, Jonas captures well the quiet indignities he inflicts on himself as the youngsters fail to celebrate his bowling skills. Palm Tree Paradise is another excellent slice of pedal steel fuelled country rock albeit a little bit chunkier and a lot more tearful as Jonas dissects a past relationship, summing up her partner’s shortcomings but admitting she’d do it all over again. Later in the album, Jonas returns to the theme of relationships on several songs which are fuelled with a desperate sadness and a barely restrained sense of fury but in the meantime there’s a couple of swell up-tempo numbers. Pink Leather Boots is a short and sassy rockabilly number which has a trucker mesmerised by a lap dancer, fantasising about taking her home to meet his mum. There’s more raunch and rockabilly in the roustabout Be Sweet To Me with Jonas snarling in fine fashion. Bridging the feisty and forlorn, Farmer John (no relation to the Nuggets frat rock number) is a dramatic slice of American gothic. The band slip and slither with a menace as Jonas kind of unravels while standing at the kitchen sink wondering where the hell her husband is. It’s Handsome Family territory perhaps but Jonas inhabits it well.
On a similar note but much more resigned in its delivery, there’s the incredibly moving Maybe You’d Hear Me Then, a shimmering number which disguises the slow burning anger of a woman left at home while Barely Breathing is a more claustrophobic take on a similar situation. Better Days gets this all in the open as Jonas describes a pair of women, a hurt wife dependent on pills, a waitress waking up with a stranger, both, like our opening cowboy, dreaming of their better days. She closes the album with a gorgeous country infused lament on Don’t Blink Honey, a song which on first listen sounds like a lullaby of sorts but turns out to be Jonas’ summation of life, basically, it’s a losing game. It’s an elegant close to an album which is gritty in its substance and lifted by the sheer exuberance of the playing.