‘The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams’ is the fifth release from Virginia singer songwriter Karen Jonas, following her 2019 release ‘Lucky Revisited’. It’s ten songs are all self penned, and show off her lyric writing skills, with vividly painted pictures of the travails of everyday life, stories of fading dreams and failing love affairs, set in the wide open spaces and small towns of the Southwest.
Musically this is her strongest release to date—her powerful and characterful vocals shine through, with the bands’ style firmly rooted in Americana, while displaying a variety of arrangements fine-tuned to each track.
Opening track ‘The Last Cowboy (at the Bowling Alley)‘ sets the tone for the album, the Mexican guitar intro and interludes placing us in a small town near the border, with pedal steel prominent in the mid tempo song, as Jonas describes the titular cowboy recalling with tenderness the glory days of his youth, now long gone.
A more up tempo note is struck by ‘Tuesday’, a country rocker describing a young woman deciding she’s had enough of being the good girl, instead ‘drinking like a sailor’ and as the refrain tells us, ‘going back to bad’.
Big bold imagery features in ‘Pink Leather Boots’, another up tempo number, in a relaxed rockabilly style, where we join the lonely guy in a seedy bar with a neon sign advertising dancing girls, where he’s watching our subject dancing wearing ‘pink leather boots and not much else’, daydreaming of taking her away in a pink Cadillac to meet his mother—a dream never to be realised.
The rock and roll feel is continued on ‘Be Sweet to Me’, summoning up the swagger of Elvis circa ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, while ‘Farmer John’ is pure Southern Gothic, it’s unsettling moodiness reminiscent of Shivaree, telling the tale of the oppressive nature of his empty and loveless but seemingly inescapable relationship with his wife.
A more hopeful note is struck in ‘Better Days’, the arrangement enriched by some tasteful 12-string guitar, where although the day-to-day existence of its characters is troubled, there is a yearning for change, as Jonas sings ‘where are my better days’.
Jonas’ lyrics have a natural conversational style, well suited to the stories she tells with understanding and empathy for her subjects, drawing the listener in. Among those she counts as her influences are Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, and she clearly has a deep knowledge of, and love for, country music in all its forms.
Backing comes from her long time collaborator Tim Bray on guitars, with Tom Hnatow on pedal steel and Wurlitzer, Seth Morrissey on bass and Seth Brown on drums.
An excellent and varied album from Karen Jonas, recommended to lovers of both traditional country and Americana.
1. The Last Cowboy (at the Bowling Alley)
2. Out In Palm Tree Paradise
4. Pink Leather Boots
5. Maybe You’d Hear Me Then
6. Be Sweet to Me
7. Farmer John
8. Barely Breathing
9. Better Days
10. Don’t Blink Honey