Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Iris DeMent and Karen Jonas

Iris DeMent – Workin’ On A World

I know Iris from the song In Spite of Ourselves, her collaboration with John Prine. Her voice is an acquired taste because she sings through her nose but, again like John, you cannot knock her grasp of metre, prosody and character.

Her seventh album, which has had a six-year gestation period, is a fine example of American music: it mixes different styles including gospel, blues, country and folk. The jazzy guitar that runs through the album, especially on tracks like Nothin’ For The Dead and Warriors of Love, reminds me of Bob Dylan’s releases since 1997, while the chug of The Sacred Now puts me in mind of Lucinda Williams and Rosanne Cash.

Activism is high on Iris’ mind. Going Down To Sing In Texas is an eight-minute protest song with a mix of piano and Hammond organ setting the scene: ‘Let’s ban hate from every corner of our land’ is a nice sentiment, and comes during a stanza about the travel ban on Muslims. She gallops through war criminals, capitalists like Jeff Bezos and murdered black folk and those who stand up for their rights.

Martin Luther King gets a namecheck in the opening line of How Long and Mahalia, meanwhile, asks if Mahalia Jackson had someone to lean on: ‘You gave to a world that never had your back’. Mahalia Jackson was the lady who asked MLK to tell the crowd about his dream.

Iris’s voice takes on different timbre on Let Me Be Your Jesus, where it is scratchy and rough. The Cherry Orchard, meanwhile, is sung in an Emmylouish quaver: ‘I bid adieu’ sounds melancholic in this voice. The title track also sounds like something Emmylou would have sung in 1974, with light reverb on Iris’ voice beckoning the listener into the album. She ends it with Waycross Georgia, an old folk song for wanderers which is given a typically DeMentian arrangement.

I Won’t Ask You Why (‘you don’t have to worry no more’) is a proper country song with the old rhythms of a song from the 1960s. Say A Good Word also has a fine structure and melody, while there’s some fluttering mandolin on Walkin’ Daddy. Like Bjork or Tori Amos, Iris DeMent is to be appreciated and applauded even if an hour might be too much in one sitting.

Popular music can be ephemeral but we also need capital-A Artists to sit and think with. Iris, like her pal John Prine, is in that class.

Karen Jonas – The Restless

Joni Mitchell, meanwhile, is a big influence on Karen Jonas, an English graduate whose sixth album begins in a Paris hotel on the song Paris Breeze. That’s Not My Dream Couch has a delightful arrangement and a charming narrator who is sipping coffee with a newspaper. If you translated more than just the last line into French, it would get heavy rotation on francophone radio.

Forever is a reminiscin’ song with some finger-picked steel-string acoustic guitar and some dobro underscoring the narrator’s memories of happier times, swigging wine from the bottle and looking up at the sky. ‘Sweat and chardonnay’ is good writing. The dobro returns on the triple-time Throw Me To The Wolves and the two-chord groove of We Could Be Lovers: ‘Is it getting hot in here or is it just you?’ Come on, that’s great writing.

Elegantly Wasted is not an INXS over but a soft shuffle on which Karen sings of being ‘beautiful and restless’. Fans of Margo Price will find solace in the mood of this song. Likewise Rock The Boat is not an Aaliyah or Hues Corporation cover but another Margoesque story in a minor mode: ‘Take a step into the light…Don’t be afraid to die!’

The Breakdown has a chorus full of ‘whiskey and regret’, although the vocal reminds me of the Poole sisters from Alisha’s Attic in parts. Lay Me Down, which also features on the album in an acoustic form, has a majestic chorus that hints at the poppier moments of Tori Amos’ career, especially with an electric guitar line joining the piano.

Drunken Dreamer is a tribute to Justin Townes Earle, Steve’s son, who died a few years ago. Karen describes ‘angels calling your star-crossed soul’ and hopes he ‘found peace’. The arrangement is surprisingly jaunty for a song so tender, and I’m sure Steve will approve of this tribute as well as the other nine tunes here.

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