Following up on perfection is a hard thing to do. The year was 2014 when indie-country singer Karen Jonas dropped “Oklahoma Lottery,” a masterpiece of an album that announced the Fredericksburg, Virginia, artist as a complete force in the local music lexicon. Her top-shelf combination of sincerely weathered wit, a beautiful trembling voice and an unmatched storytelling aptitude demanded not only attention but respect. She was mean. She was hurt. She was angry. She was sad. She didn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve, she lit it on fire and carried it around over her head.
Such is why the expectation for “Country Songs,” her follow-up to that breakthrough set, was established at an unfairly impossible height. Could the tenderness of “Thinkin’ Of You Again” or the explicit fun of “Suicide Sal” be re-created — or even better, outdone — by a new collection of songs that might expand her template into unchartered territory? Would the act of being great be taken for granted, if only because the initial standard was perfection? Did this record even have a chance?
The answers to those questions are almost as impossible as the feat that stood in front of Jonas while recording this record. Still, “Country Songs” is beyond fabulous. Staying true to her blend of Americana, folk, country, bluegrass and pop, these 10 tracks are a viable extension — if not occasional evolution — of her previous work. The fire is prevalent and the perspective unapologetic. It’s what makes her an essential artist within a landscape constantly in need of vitality.
Look no further than the leading title track for a reintroduction to how addicting Jonas’s work can be. Funny yet compelling, self-referential yet lightly presented, it’s both longing and harsh — oftentimes simultaneously. Admitting that she didn’t grow up relating to the very music with which she is most commonly associated these days, it’s meta in all the most delicious ways, bringing to the forefront a heart shattered by the partner who taught her to enjoy the genre. “Gotta get your heart good and broken before you sing along,” she intones before thanking the dastardly ex-companion for introducing her to the music she now loves. Add in a barb about wearing tight jeans and it’s vintage Karen Jonas.
Other classic moments? How about “Ophelia,” which showcases guitarist Tim Bray’s excellent Western shredding in a consistently elegant manner. Part rockabilly, part Bakersfield, all wisdom, the track hears the singer coach someone through a breakup in exhilarating fashion. She’s at her best when she talk-sings her way through verses and as she advocates for her student-in-waiting to take a deep breath, it’s hard not to smile. You can tell this came from someone who knows a thing or two about being on both sides of heartbreak, and she’s all the better for it.
Speaking of heartbreak, “Wasting Time” leaves no string attached to that organ un-pulled. Punctuated by persuasive pop balladry, the country western influence here is almost entirely moot, yet that doesn’t mean her words aren’t as affecting or commanding as they are elsewhere. Completing the four-course meal is a hearty entree of Bray’s classic-rock soloing that splits the song in two halves — before the succulent dish is consumed and after its tasked with settling into your stomach. In short, his work is an explosion of flavor.
The stomach is left slightly empty only when Jonas experiments with atmosphere. “The Garden” harkens back to the days when Chris Isaak was rolling around on a beach in various states of undress and while it’s encouraging to hear her add another layer of darkness to a world already devoid of lights, it stretches just a tiny bit too long. Closer “Yankee Doodle Went Home” crawls along similarly, but the blatantly defeatist ethos bring the production back from the edge whenever it starts to slip. Or, in other words, there’s singing about being forlorn, and then there’s listening to Karen Jonas make you feel it.
That said, it’s still always been her cleverness that sets her above the rest. “Keep Your Hands To Yourself” is an exhilarating boogie as honest as it is defiant. “You should keep your hands to yourself next time, if that’s how you want to be / Just because I wanted you doesn’t mean you can make a fool out of me,” she demands within the song’s hook, and it’s hard not to cheer her on. “Wandering Heart,” meanwhile, plays in that push-pull space that all great country music plays in, our protagonist wrestling with wanting to stay faithful all the while knowing if she doesn’t receive the attention she deserves, she’s prone to mistakes. It’s a reminder that the distance between a wandering heart and wandering feat is often much further to travel than one should ever be forced to endure.
Yet without enduring her fair share of … well … traveling, who knows if Karen Jonas would be able to create such vibrant art. And while you can draw comparisons if you must — a song title like “Whiskey and Dandelions” sounds awfully familiar to Ashley Monore’s “Weed Instead Of Roses,” does it not? The truth is that this is an artist who feels entirely singular. “Country Songs” establishes that fact if only for exemplifying the “fool me once, fool me twice” cliche. Anybody can put out a great record, but it takes a fully realized artist to maintain that level of expertise.
Make no mistake. With “Country Songs,” Karen Jonas is a fully realized artist.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***