Karen and the Sorrows - Profile
published: 8 / 11 / 2019
Kimberly Bright reflects upon rising band Brooklyn’s Karen and the Sorrows and finds that with their second LP 'Guaranteed Broken Heart' they have created a minutely authentic and timeless traditional country album on the theme of heartbreak and loss.
People who stereotype country music as not being diverse might consider Karen and the Sorrows to be something unusual in country. It’s true that Ken Burns’ recent 16-hour 8-episode documentary about the genre was short on examples that weren’t white, rural, southern/midwestern, Christian, and blue-collar but in singer-songwriter Karen Pittelman’s case I would argue just the opposite: she embodies several different long-standing threads in the country subculture: the Jewish background of Kinky Friedman and Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, the community-based philanthropy of Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, and countless others, the queer sexual orientation of Lavender Country, Chely Wright Brandy Clark, and Billy Gilman, and the political consciousness of Johnny Cash. The only thing that is truly non-traditional about her is that she’s from an affluent part of New York City. Even the trust fund she gave away in her mid-twenties to kickstart her philanthropic endeavours certainly isn’t unheard of to the second- and third- generation singer-songwriters from famous empire-building families in Nashville and Austin. Okay, so she might not be a coal miner’s or sharecropper’s daughter; rather she’s the Ivy League-educated daughter of the successful entrepreneur behind Heartland Records, which used to sell mail-order compilation albums mainly through TV commercials in the US. Americans over forty might remember Heartland’s lengthy late-night kitschy adverts for Boxcar Willie albums. Her left-leaning politics are more reminiscent of progressive folk singers (Woody Guthrie), but still found among country artists (Steve Earle, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves). I suspect that I’d really enjoy a collaboration between her and Billy Bragg, Karen looks a bit like the southern California cowpunk band Screamin’ Sirens and her somewhat fragile voice reminds me of both Rosie Flores and Kitty Wells. She’s not a belter like Miranda Lambert or LeAnn Rimes, but she also doesn’t employ any hiccupy sighs. Despite her own punk and queercore background, fear not: 'Guaranteed Broken Heart', their second album, is nothing like the cringe-inducing country cover albums some punk luminaries have inflicted on the world. It is a traditional, old-school country string band record: pedal steel guitar, dobro, fiddle. So in terms of intention, background, and sound, Karen and the Sorrows are exactly where they should be. There’s no indication of radical political leanings or socialist rabble-rousing on 'Guaranteed Broken Heart'. It is just what the title says: heartbreak, devastation, yearning, struggles to endure a breakup and move on, in the dramatic vein of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams. It could have been recorded at any point from, say, 1950 to this morning. The sweet but dark atmosphere is briefly broken with 'Third Time’s the Charm' and 'Jonah and the Whale' but quickly returns to Goth territory, but with a hint of humour and wordplay. The songs are predominantly, well, sorrowful and wistful, as if Morrissey had written lyrics for The Whites. It sounds like something stellar music journalist Amanda Petrusich would run across in someone’s barn or the kind of material the producers of the 'Nashville' TV series would commission for a season’s worth of authentic-sounding country music to go with a suitably messy polyamorous romantic plotline. Alt-country listeners who are casual dabblers in country, omnivorous lovers of good songwriting and lyrics, and die-hard fans of classic country who are not fond of recent pop-oriented New Country will find a lot to like about 'Guaranteed Broken Heart'.
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