Growth is what comes to mind while listening to Karen Jonas’s “Butter.” It’s been nearly five years since she burst through the saloon doors, guns drawn, with her masterpiece, “Oklahoma Lottery.” It wasn’t long after that when the decidedly more tame “Country Songs” was unleashed, led by a title track as clever as it was desperate.
And now there’s “Butter,” a more accessible set than her previous efforts that leans more toward straight-ahead pop than both her other records combined. Continuously paired with her machete-like wit, the stories here are as good as ever while the music tones down the type of aggression you heard so cuttingly throughout Jonas’s earlier work. It combines for a fulfilling listen, even if you do occasionally wish she would opt to cook with more, say, bitter than she does butter.
But that’s what makes this such a curious collection — while she pulls back on past predilections, she opens up rooms to which no one probably even knew she had a key. “Mr. Wonka” is circus-like (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, might be why it’s followed by the album-finale called … well … “The Circus”), its waltz echoing visions of the track’s namesake, horn section and all. It’s a fun exercise that’s about as far away from Country Songs as Jay-Z is to the Florida Georgia Line.
The other departure comes in the form of the title track, which transports you right from the rodeo to a 1950s nightclub somewhere in Manhattan. It’s jazzy and smokey and everything that used to make pop music so great. Providing more fun is the singer’s ability to turn phrasing as brilliantly as she does. There isn’t another artist within 500 miles that can take “Mama cooks with butter” and turn it into “Mama drinks straight whiskey” so effortlessly.
And yet still, these are the novelties. When Jonas returns to the flavors we’re used to tasting, it’s hard to forget there’s nary a better chef around. “My Sweet Arsonist” has deliciously western leanings, pedal steel and all, and it showcases the singer’s tender side, her voice downsizing to something just above a whisper every now and then. Naturally, that dynamism makes her regret feel just a little more palpable than it has before as she confesses, “I could build a lifetime from the things I’ve given up.”
One thing she hasn’t given up is her world-weary eye, and that’s as prevalent as ever on “Mama’s First Rodeo,” another retrofitted country swing dance that reestablishes Jonas as someone who knows more about a thing or two than you probably know about a thing or two. One of her many secret weapons has always been her ability to curse effectively, and this song is no exception as the chorus takes hold (one listen, and you’ll see what that means). And with a groove that subliminally walks the line between Nashville and Jamaica, it’s perhaps the most interesting song here.
As for the best song, that title could go to “Dance With Me,” a mini epic that allows the singer to leave a lasting vocal impression once the song gets its feet under it. Sure, it seems simple at first — a traditional slow burn of a tune with structure that’s as straightforward as it gets — but while the organ rises and she dares you dance through it all, your heart both breaks and lights up in a flurry of flames, inspired by the demand, hopeful for the perseverance.
Thankfully, perseverance is an idiom about which Karen Jonas knows a thing or six. This being solo album No. 3, it’s hard to blame her for adding new ingredients to recipes already deserving of Michelin stars. Such is why, in this case, adding a little “Butter” to the formula doesn’t just make the meal a little more versatile; it signifies how essential it is to keep filling the pantry with the type of things you once never knew existed.
Or in short, regardless of if it’s a guitar or a frying pan in your hand, growth is imperative for artistry. These 10 songs affirm that at this point, Karen Jonas is cooking with gas.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***