The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams
Beautiful and Richly Retailed Vignettes of the Duality of American Life
“The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams” marks Karen Jonas’ first recording with a settled band; and the interplay and development of a clear, strong sound allied to Jonas’ sharp songwriting permeates this release.
“The Last Cowboy (at the Bowling Alley),” which opens with Latin guitar flourishes against a solid danceable back-beat tells of the “King of the Yucca Valley” and – like Paul Le Mat’s John in American Graffiti – he’s found himself left behind by the times …. and the “glory’s gone”.
“Out in Palm Tree Paradise” also deals with good times gone – dynamic stops and starts and tasteful guitar licks punctuate a tale of love been and gone and the mixed feelings that such moments generate.
The tempo picks up a little on “Tuesday” with the richly-detailed tale of dreams thwarted by apathy and the messy detritus of an ordinary life punctuated only by excitement of the odd night out.
“Pink Leather Boots” adopts a more sultry gentle Rockabilly feel and takes the listener out on such a night out where dreams are again not to be – to a strip club where our hero fantasises about his future with the dancing girl in the eponymous “Pink Leather Boots” where the incongruity of the setting and his desires tells us it’s doomed to fail – if anything even happens outside his head.
This difference between reality and expectation is further explored in “Maybe You’d Hear Me Then” where the song’s character – a disillusioned housewife asks:
“is this the real world
or is it all just in my head?”
set to an arrangement and lyrical that is reminiscent of “The River” era Springsteen.
Musically, “Be Sweet To Me” is another Rockabilly romp, but lyrically the disconnect between what we want and what we get is still there
“got your hair slicked back like you’re James Dean
but you care more about your hair than me”
we all know how that ends…
“Farmer John” isn’t the old Garage-Rock standard, but a tale of a relationship gone badly wrong.
The prison song bluesy backing and detail of an old dingy kitchen and the insects that live in it add to the sense of menace as the character waits for her partner’s return.
Another relationship gone wrong is on display in “Barely Breathing” and again it’s the falling way of excited first feelings and the revelation of dull reality in contrast that leaves the song’s protagonist “barely breathing” – matters which arise on the penultimate track “Better Days” where Jonas’ Amanda Shires-esque vocal phrasings tell of a deep confessional chat
“you know I firebombed my life a long time ago”
“why do I need these pills just to be OK”.
The album ends with the gorgeously melodic melancholy of “Don’t Blink Honey” which takes a hard-nosed and realistic view of life
“you work your whole damn life and still you never win
it’s a losing game, you know, a losing game”.
The disconnect between the sky-blue Southern sky dreaming and the nature of reality that winds its way through all this album in a highly literate and musical manner creates a riveting anthology of tales and tunes. With mature, developed writing and playing like this, Karen Jonas will soon by moving more towards sparkling dreams and further away from the humdrum reality she paints in sharp focus.
It’s always a good sign when an artist you hadn’t heard of makes you want to explore their back catalogue – and that’s exactly what I need to do now after hearing “The Southwest Sky and Other Dreams”
Review by Nick Barber
Released UK & EU 28th 2020
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