KAREN JONAS – The Restless (own label)

The RestlessOver the course of five albums, the Maryland-born singer has established herself as very much a country voice with old school leanings. This time round, however, she’s in far darker alt-country often bluesier mood on a collection of frequently doom-hung songs exploring vulnerability. The Restless opens in France with the spooked intro and piano-backed rhythmically urgent gathering of ‘Paris Breeze’, “yellow lights and cobblestones/a glass of wine that never gets empty/glitter in the sky and stars that shine/a million years to you and me/an old hotel with lace and velvet/and some stones they brought here long before the mayflower”, a number that conjures desire (“it grows suffocating here without you near enough to touch me in the bedsheets”) and memories of a tryst in some hotel room.

As the album title suggests, she has the itch and she’s going to scratch it. ‘The Breakdown’ being an organ-fuelled Southern country soul groove that finds her in a bar with an on/off lover (“sometimes I forget that you even exist/sometimes I miss you but if we’re both here after a couple of drinks/I’d still kiss you”), she keen to get things on  (“I really could use another drink/don’t you think you could buy me a drink/come on over and buy me a drink then let’s get out of here and get closer”), he, “sipping on whiskey and regret”, seemingly less so, rubbing salt in the wound as, with more than a hint of euphemism,  she remarks “this morning out shopping I saw your ex-wife but I’m not even sure what she looks like/so just to be careful I hid in the frozen food aisle/and I guess I don’t know how you left it with her/but I assume you went through with the divorce/now she’s buying waffles and I’m looking for dessert”.

Sensuality and seduction simmers further to wailing guitar solos and keys on ‘Lay Me Down’  as she invites “the tender pressure of your fingers/the bite of bourbon on your tongue” but wary that things might not turn out well  (“I’m just a little nervous to love you/I should leave on the midnight train/this isn’t gonna be a casual romance/it’s gonna be heartbreak”) yet even so she’ll “see what I can take”.

Things return to Paris to get ‘Elegantly Wasted’ with a twangsome guitar and echoes of  Three Dog Night’s cover of Hoyt Axton’s ‘Never Been To Spain’, where she’s “Cinderella in the moonlight… dancing on the sidewalk in a sweater and blue jeans” and he’s “Humphry Bogart in the streetlamp” for another potentially brief encounter (“will you still love me in the morning just the way you do tonight”). France remains the default while the musical territory switches to gypsy swing for ‘That’s Not My Dream Couch’ where the canapé du rêves in question serves as a metaphor for  refusing  to settle for anything less than what she wants (“believe me monsieur/yes I’ll get what I want and ’til then I’ll drink my coffee on the floor…there are some things in life that don’t come easy/there are some compromises that we make/well listen boys this isn’t one of them”).

The tempo changes again as she heads back Stateside for the achingly lovely Nanci Griffith-tinged ‘Forever’, a dobro-coloured bittersweet reflection on an old young love flame and what might have been (“we’d hold hands down Main Street/stop into a soda shop together/you would buy me a ring/from a nickel bubble gum machine/you’d propose down on one knee/and I’d just laugh ’cause we agreed/we don’t need that kind of paperwork when you know it’s real”) that sports the memorable line “you taste like sweat and chardonnay but so do I”.

Opening with a distant drone, metronomic guitar line and whispered vocals, gathering to a steady and relentless walking beat, ‘Rock The Boat’ is basically about living life to the full and “let the wine pour heavy” because “the hooded bandit gets you sooner or later”, the intensity building as she sings “I kept my body like a cage around me/my soul trapped inside/so I tiptoed to the raging river/left my clothes there by its side/across the water looked like peace and freedom”, yet with death seen as setting you free from the lie you’ve been sold.

Written in the wake of Justin Townes Earle’s death, ‘Drunken Dreamer’ serves both as a melancholic tribute   (“the desolate son of a famous man…lost in the sadness of the songs that you wrote…chasing down …the fickle love of the sweet spotlight”) and a prayer  (“it seemed like you’d finally beaten that game/when Nashville’s hopelessness called your name/blue-eyed dreamer fell one last time/the lonely shadows of an August night/I hope you found peace, freedom at last/from all the troubles you had”).

A scuffed shuffle carries the dreamy ‘We Could Be Lovers’ as she channels early Joni Mitchell for another song suffused with sensuality and seduction (“is it getting hot in here or is just you/tell me what’s an honest girl supposed to do/so I take off my sweater/are you getting warmer too”), staying in late might mood for the dobro coloured closing waltztime  guitar solo graced country ‘Throw Me to the Wolves’ for one final plunge into the whirlpool of love that will suck you down (“our stars never did align our moon was a sinking ship…you’ve always been crazy you know/I loved that when I first saw you/but I knew I’d have to watch you go…go find someone new/the stars always said I wasn’t meant for you”), as she declares that’ while he’s off chasing the moon’ “I’ll be here at my favorite bar/so c’mon all your rounders/let’s drink one for the good time boys/I’ll drink another to forget you”  because “I’m comfortable with my broken heart” even if “you shot me and you’re not even sorry”.

The Restless ends with a bonus stripped down solo acoustic version of ‘Lay Me Down’, which, after all the ups and downs that have preceded it, signs off with a final chord and the throwaway line “okay I’m happy now”. Having made an album like this, she has  every right to be.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.karenjonasmusic.com

‘Paris Breeze’ – official video: