I had a chance to see Kat Jones a few months ago, when she came through Omaha with Cheyenne. And the one thing I remember most about Jones’ set was her voice. Simply put, the girl can sing, possessing a set of pipes that, when really unleashed on songs like “One More Second Chance,” came pretty darn close to stripping the paint from the walls. But I also remember the dark sensibilities and undercurrents that weave their way through her music. While her music isn’t outright dark, these smoky current do turn her songs into something a bit more enigmatic and captivating.
La Rosa, La Calavera, Jones’ first full-length (and second release) on Velvet Blue Music, finds her somewhat reigning in that first element (her voice), while stripping things down to further reveal the the darker allures. That’s not to say that Jones’ voice isn’t impressive on the disc. However, compared to the outbursts that punctuated her live performance, these studio recordings are more restrained, and not altogether in a bad way. If nothing else, the result of this is a much more balanced sound for Jones, one in which her capabilities as a singer and songwriter balance and accentuate each other.
In the past, when I’ve described Jones’ music to others, I’ve often used PJ Harvey (another siren whose singular voice is backed by dark musical elements) as a reference point. However, with La Rosa, La Calavera, I’m more tempted to go with another acclaimed female singer, Aimee Mann. Indeed “The Night Is a Veil” contains a similar sound and feel to Mann’s work on the Magnolia soundtrack, from the piano and organ interplay to the breathy/yearning vocals. The same goes for the acoustic-driven “The Great Scottish Hurricane.”
“Those Expensive Eyes” is probably the album’s darkest moment, a rolling torch song in the vein of Torrez. Jones’ distant, lethargic voice is haunted by Frank Lenz’ organ and choppy, distorted guitars, evoking scenes of murder and romance somewhere on the bayou. Lenz’ organ is also used to tremendous effect on the moving “Sleeping Winter Fool,” where it negotiates a soft, moonlit waltz with Jones’ pleading voice. Josh Dooley’s slide guitar picks up the dance on “Letters,” before fading away and giving Jones’ voice enough room for one of the album’s most fiery moments, and allowing the song a graceful dénouement.
Throughout much of the album, Jones depends on her considerable backing band, which includes members of Starflyer 59, Fine China, and Map. And sometimes, her voice does get lost in the mix, especially when Lenz goes to town on the drums. However, there are moments when it’s little more than Jones and her piano, and not surprisingly, those are some of the album’s most affecting and intimate moments.
Both “When Answers Don’t Come” and “The Case” are soft, haunting ballads. The former is an ode to a reluctant lover, while the latter (which, admittedly, does feature some minimal input from her band) is a worshipful, hymn-like piece. Here, Jones humbly sings “So I give it my all/For I know it is my call/To reveal His true peace on my face/And I hold my head high/For I cannot deny/The truth of His glory, the truth of His grace” in a manner that might have some drawing comparisons to Over The Rhine’s Karin Berquist.
Although the album lacks some of the fire that Jones packs into her live performance, I prefer the subtler performances here. However, Jones’ doesn’t ever deny the power of her voice, but simply chooses to restrain it. It’s still there in the background, and one keeps an eye on it throughout the album lest it break out and surprise the heck out of you. This restraint is quite fascinating and only makes La Rosa, La Calavera all the more intriguing, as well as a welcome female voice in VBM’s catalog.