'A Woman's Work' by Karen Killeen-Jones

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'A Woman's Work' by Karen Killeen-Jones

Review

Out right now is the debut solo EP by Karen Killeen-Jones, one half of the K C Jones duo (check out their "Stronger" on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Ten'): and it's already getting airplay.

Entitled ‘A Woman's Work', there are titular and thematic nods of her head in several directions: Kate Bush, the must-read book of essays edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson and perhaps nearest at hand, the latest album by Ellie Gowers which looks at several (former) occupations of Warwickshire women from a similar folkloric perspective. Since Ellie alerted me to the talents of Lauren South who in turn introduced me to Karen's work, there is an underlying sense of sisterhood and community discernible here too.

There are a half dozen songs here: four self-compositions and two traditional ones: "The Blacksmith" and "All Things Are Quite Silent". In an era when the pool of songs in cover acts seem to be diminishing, it's refreshing to hear someone share a cover version of which I'm not already aware.

To match this, it's all Karen: on vocals, guitar, piano, shruti-box, piano accordion, cajon, whistle and percussion with Mick Bisiker's production and mastering being the sum of other involvement.

The songs engage with the lives of women (for which read working class women) of yesteryear from multiple angles. None is precisely a description of a precise trade as Ellie's are but come in obliquely and combine to paint something of a complex picture.

"The Blacksmith" opens the collection and is set to the same tune as "He Who Would Valiant Be": this is very much one of those songs about promises of marriage which turn out to have been mendacious: the fate one fears of far too many women in the gender powerplays of yore. As I say, the work theme comes in from different places & here we are reminded that not only "gentlemen" or soldiers play false but the village blacksmith, usually a symbol of solid virtue in folk songs, is just as capable.

"Mad Mary" is the first of the originals and one from Karen's vaults which has at long last found a home on a record. Karen describes it as a "female version of Sweeney Todd". A more stately Victorian music hall sort of song, the contrast with the preceding track is most effective & introduces a very different sort of profession than those one might have expected to be covered.

The next two songs form a sort of pairing, since they both concern the work of the press gang: the traditional "All Things Are Quite Silent" (sung to the solo drone of the shruti box with additional voices joining in and performed at age 16 in an unaccompanied singing competition at Sidmouth Folk Festival judged by Shirley Collins) and Karen's own "Home To Me" which boasts a few more instruments. Both I suppose paint a picture that male employment practices (if one could call the press gang that) have always impacted on women left behind without resources and with the emotional burdens of absent family members in ages before easy communication let alone safer vessels.

"Poor Polly Button" is "..the true story of Mary Green who was allegedly killed by her married lover John Danks in 1832.." and again Karen walks a high wire musically, using only her cajon & percussion to evoke machinery. She was inspired to compose it by appearing in Katherine Fear's folk opera "The Undoing of Polly Button": the stakes from the opening track have clearly been raised as far as they might go.

The final song (and it really has to end the EP in order to provide a pulling together of threads) is the title track and appropriately has an arrangement nearest to a contemporary folk sound. Looking back to pre-emancipation, nevertheless, it offers a line of continuity and suggests that while contexts have evolved, issues for women are not yet resolved nor equality achieved.

"Women's work" is certainly often the economic but as we've all seen, too often the domestic burden is dumped on them as are various forms of emotional ones & sheer coping when life & forces of the patriarchy leaves dependents otherwise unsupported. Occasionally they take their very lives. Responses can, as Karen has indicated, range from the bitter, to the need to embrace criminality to survive, from resignation to the "Blitz Spirit" of just getting on with what needs doing, irrespective of any sense of acceptance or complicity. Men, whether individually or collectively, have long oppressed women and this EP explores various instances.

It's not comprehensive (it would need to be a box set to try that) but I like how Karen generally avoids ground overly trodden: these six songs dance around the subject and offer fresh perspectives, even when the central themes are as old as society.

Musically too it is a brave collection: Karen has an excellent voice & that is at the heart of each song: she has stories she wants to share & so the words are the focus. Impressive as her range of instrumental skills may be, what is important is that she uses no more than each song needs: so the total is high but no track employs them all: in fact two are very sparse in arrangement.

Consequently you also get a nice variety in sound as well as subject: stylistically they all fit into some broad definition of "folk" but I emphasise the breadth. No two consecutive songs sound much alike.

There is love here: ranging from a song first sung as a teenager in front of a titan of English folk (who apparently esteemed her performance) through an "orphaned" song now with a home to more recent musings on these matters, this may be a debut solo release but it's been assembled from pieces which matter a good deal to Karen & so worth the wait.

In terms of hearing these songs live, Karen is at Banbury Folk Club at the Three Pigeons tonight (Wednesday 22nd May) but I'm not sure if they'll feature in the duo setlist. Regardless, you can catch Karen and Colin playing on the CVFolk Stage at Coventry's Motofest on Sunday 2nd June at five past four.

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