First Impressions: Summer Songs by Karen Jonas

One of the oddest moments of my concert-going career came in the late winter of 2016-17, when Diane and I navigated the snowy roads from our suburban enclave to the World Cafe Live in West Philadelphia to see the Staves. We assumed the show would be like many others we attend, attracting music aficionados with an ear for acts beyond the pop charts; beyond each other and a few bloggers, we knew no one who had heard of the sisters Staverly-Taylor, let alone enjoyed their music. So imagine our surprise when the large room filled to capacity with 20- and 30-somethings.

That’s not the odd moment, by the way. This is: The pre-show music was littered with under-the-radar songs that went beyond the WCL’s usual cool house music before concluding with a blast from the 1980s – Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.” Everyone around us began singing to it and/or mouthing the lyrics and, as the house light dimmed, the Staves filed onto stage, the collective voices morphing into cheers and applause. It was a surreal moment, to say the least, to be in the midst of young ‘uns singing along to a song that hit the charts long before they were born. 

Written by Henley and Mike Campbell, the song is a bittersweet slice of nostalgia that’s about much more than a past relationship. (“Summer loving, had me a blast” it’s not.) On top of that is the injection of false bravado (“but babe, I’m gonna get you back/I’m going to show you what I’m made of”), an observation of how the pages of time have turned (“I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac”) and begrudging acceptance (“those days are gone forever”). Henley’s vocals have a wistful gravitas to them, as they often do, which adds to the song’s weighty feel.

In the early 2000s, the Ataris tried to give it a punk edge and, while they succeeded in having a minor hit, turned it into little more than angsty fluff. A decade later, KT Tunstall upped the atmospherics and added some cool backing vocals, but Henley’s grainy voice floated just out of ear’s reach throughout the production. Somewhere in there, Brad Paisley began covering it in concert; the versions I’ve heard on YouTube are little more than exercises in collective nostalgia. And, just last year, Bat for Lashes released a restrained rendition of it on a live EP that, while doing the song justice, suffered the same fate as Tunstall’s. “A little voice inside my head said/‘Don’t look back, you can never look back,’” indeed.  

Enter Karen Jonas, a country singer by way of Fredericksburg, Va. I stumbled upon her cover of “The Boys of Summer” last week and, well, the idea that anyone would give the iconic song yet another go left me somewhat agog. I couldn’t help myself, however, and clicked play.

If you listened, you’ll know that her version follows the basic blueprint laid down by Henley and Campbell decades ago, while subtracting the synths and upping the tune’s twang undercurrent a tad. Perhaps because she stays true to the song’s structure, the payoff is that much larger. She captures the nuances of the lyrics and makes them ring true. She mourns both the summer (her youth) and the guy who got away. It’s not karaoke, in other words, but a reflection and expression of the soul.

It makes an excellent leadoff track on her four-song Summer Songs EP, which was released on Friday. The other three songs, all originals, sport a similar wistfulness; her voice and lyrics capture the grainy realities of life and love. In the case of “Summer’s Hard for Love,” in which a soft shuffle carries her breezy vocal, that means hoping to sway a guy she scared away: “Don’t you see/I could be so sweet to you/Give me a chance/It’s so easy/Give me a chance…”

The third track, “Thunder on the Battery,” ups the tension a tad – and, this time, it’s her who’s leaving him. “Our love was like a summer wine/Rich and sweet and strong/But I’m ordering whiskey at the bar.” The closing “Summer Moon” finds her vowing to wait for her man: “If you’re ever coming home/I’ll be waiting for you/under the summer moon.”

As a whole, the EP works as a delightful introduction to Jonas’ country stylings, which – a quick survey of her catalog reveals – lean more to traditional honky tonk than pop. I look forward to exploring her previous releases.

The track list:

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