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The best kind of artists are the ones who can evolve their sound while simultaneously staying true to what made them great in the first place. With Oklahoma Lottery, Karen Jonas brought a raw, fiery edge to the forefront that appeared on many “best of” lists for 2014. With Country Songs, Jonas evoked a Bakersfield sound to honor her heroes even if the overall results were a bit more scattershot than her previous effort. On her latest album, Butter, Jonas has gone in a completely different direction, bringing in elements of jazz and soul to craft one of 2018’s most underrated albums thus far.
On the surface, Butter can feel like Jonas’ lightest album, and to be fair, the album could have afforded to bring more of an edge in certain places. Still, it’s amazing how many themes from different perspectives Jonas handles here. What’s even more amazing is how cohesive it all is.
Circuses, theatricality, giving new meaning to famous fictional characters, framing it all from a personal narrative … Butter does it all really. “Yellow Brick Road” might find Jonas a bit shaky vocally at first, but it’s the theme of perseverance that signals the start of the journey for Jonas on this album.
That’s probably the most striking difference between Butter and past Jonas projects aside from the obvious stylistic choices – the personal feel to this. The big theme here is acceptance, not only of one’s limitations but also of the lives we live. It’s not always pretty. Both “Mama’s First Rodeo” and “Mr. Wonka” find her shrugging off men with dubious intentions (with the slight reference that they’re businessmen in the music industry), and “Dance With Me” especially finds her in a vulnerable moment.
Still, it’s all about finding reasons to keep going, even if where you’re going isn’t where you originally wanted to. “Gospel Of The Road” finds her thankful to be able to be a musician for example, but not without the acknowledgement of the strains it puts on her or her family. The lesson doesn’t come without the pain as evident on the closer, “The Circus,” and sometimes we watch what it can do to others like on “Oh Icarus.” Still, Jonas at least finds closure with the ones who matter most – her family. Whether it be coming full circle on “My Sweet Arsonist” or quite literally taking the “’til death do us part” thing seriously on “Kamikaze Love,” there’s at least something to hold onto.
While there are certain spots on the album where the production can feel a tad seedy and dated like the guitar solo of “Gospel Of The Road,” there’s also a lot variety in terms of what’s offered. Fans of her past projects will enjoy the straight-laced country tune, “Mama’s First Rodeo” even if it feels out of place thematically here. Elsewhere, a healthy mix of ragtime trumpets, saloon piano, saxophone and trombone provide the backbone for many of these tracks. The title track especially brings an edge that isn’t quite as fleshed out as it should be on “Mama’s First Rodeo.” “Kamikaze Love” meanwhile just may her among her best work, taking a hazy, atmospheric tone and bolstering it with liquid tones and pedal steel to craft something that feels like a voyage into the unknown. Of course, it’s fitting that the song chooses to use that kind of imagery all things considered.
“Oh Icarus” meanwhile is something intensifies throughout each pre-chorus, bringing in some great guitar licks to add to the uneasiness of the situation. “Mr. Wonka” takes a page out of the actual movie by turning into a musical number during each chorus to surprisingly good effect.
While Butter finds Jonas stepping out of her comfort zone, for the most part, she pulls it off quite nicely. Those who enjoy albums that are a little more colorful and varied in their presentation will find a lot to like with this album, and while it’s gotten slightly overlooked, Butter is a damn great listen.
- Best tracks: “Kamikaze Love,” “Oh Icarus,” “Butter,” “The Circus,” “My Sweet Arsonist”
- Worst track: “Mama’s First Rodeo”