Did you ever listen to an album that immediately made you go, “oohh”? Like, you know — out loud? To yourself? The first song ends and you can’t possibly think it gets better. But then it does. So you’re certain that song number three will finally be that weak spot. But it’s not. In fact, it’s even better than that second track. So then you move to four. Same thing. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. It goes on and on and on, and each time you’re ready for an artist to fall on his or her face, the artist rises up to surpass your expectations.
Every. Single. Time.
Karen Jonas made a perfect record when she made “Oklahoma Lottery.” An ex-member of the beloved Civil Wars-esque Americana duo The Parlor Soldiers, the singer strikes gold with her solo debut, a breathlessly fierce trip through all the emotions that make the art of music so addicting, so precious. There’s heartbreak. And profanity. And loneliness. And confidence. And doubt. And love. And hate. There are mistakes she hints at regretting she made. There are mistakes she hints at wanting to do again. It’s so raw that you almost feel as though you’re violating her privacy by merely listening to these 10 songs more than once.
There are two key elements to the paragon that is “Oklahoma Lottery,” the first of which is obvious: Jonas’ voice. It fluctuates impressively, one minute honing in on an inherent cuteness best seen on the swinging “Get Out of My Head,” while the next, quivering through the lost love of “Thinkin’ of You Again.” Better yet is that she’s smart enough to play with that chameleon quality only when she needs to. Part of why “Thinkin’” is so unbelievably affecting is the fact that you rarely hear her return to that very dark and very real place in any of the other nine tracks. One listen and you don’t want to hug her any more than you simply want to lay her head on a soft pillow and leave her be. It’s the sound of a heart breaking into a trove of desperately hopeful pieces.
The other element that sets this apart from other country-leaning femme fatales is the singer’s vividly exquisite storytelling abilities. Opener “Suicide Sal” is a barrel of fun, its train beat eventually bubbling over into an inescapable chorus: “They call me Suicide Sal/ But honey, I don’t smoke cigars/ It was just a joke, you know/ And I never shot no one/ Three years on the run, just about all a girl can do/ Honey, if you’re goin’ down, I’m goin’ down with you.” “Money” then ups the speed slightly and puts the attitude meter at an all-time high when Jonas begins her second verse by asserting, “I’ve never dreamed of havin’ a million bucks/ It’s a damn good thing because I’m broke as … “ (Well, she’s as broke as a word that rhymes with buck). The move wouldn’t work if it wasn’t recited with the amount of vitriol and disgust the singer uses, but man: This song alone is enough warning that you best think twice before crossing Karen Jonas.
Aggression, however, isn’t the singer’s only specialty. If there’s one other blatantly palpable aspect to all of this, it’s her constant expression of vulnerability. “Steppin’ on Your Toes” will break your heart more than her ferocity hopes to snap your neck. “Tell me why is it so hard to love you,” she offers over hushed drums and fantastically tasteful electric guitar doodling, and she’s desperate. By the time she brings the hook around to the payoff line — “and why is it so easy, too?” — you’re already in a country-western trance, hanging on every word Jonas confesses. It’s hard to imagine the song written in anything but a candlelit room.
Comparisons are a trite game to play when attempting to explain local music anyway, but this former Parlor Soldier doesn’t deserve to be deduced to a doppelganger in the first place. She stands mightily all by herself, a wrecking crew of imagination as poignant as it is approachable, as subversive as it is obvious. Once the record’s swan song, “White Trash Romance,” kicks in, it’s nearly impossible not to laugh. Laugh as she explains her main character by noting his pickup line: “I got good hot water and air conditioning, too.” Laugh as the imagery recounts a ragtime feel that swings in an open country field populated by little more than a barn. Laugh as the buried guitars provide just the right amount of flippancy as the bass offers just the right amount of groove.
Or, for that matter, laugh at how impeccable these 10 songs are. Because from the breathy, pop-twang of the excellent title track that wonders why or if God has ever cared about anyone, all the way to the bad-boy-crazy, smokey drive of “I Never Learn,” this is a collection of songs that demands to be heard. Yet while some artists cobble together sets with such a hope and do little to convince listeners why any of us should even be listening at all, Karen Jonas confronts potential naysayers with confidence and ability almost instantly — you’ll know by the end of the first song if you’re on board or not. What ultimately sets this record apart, though, is that she does a good job of suggesting she probably doesn’t care if you’re with her or against her anyway. Sort of like she wants you to believe she doesn’t care about money. Or love. Or bad boys. Or loneliness. Or desperation. Or any of the other messy things that make up a life.
Yet that’s where the most essential part of the entire operation comes into focus: For as unabashedly bare as she is through every performance of every song here, each note of “Oklahoma Lottery” proves that … well … it proves that she actually does care about these precise inevitabilities. Sure, that juxtaposition helps make the whole thing feel irresistible, but it’s also sonic proof that Karen Jonas thrives in conflict. She prefers gray over black or white. She doesn’t turn lemons into lemonade; she takes lemons and spikes her whiskey before punching you in the face.
The best part? Bruises rarely, if ever, sound this great.
**** 4 STARS OUT OF 4 ****