I’ve known Karen Mansfield for many years. Karen got her real start in a band called The Bleeding Knees. Mostly tongue-in-cheek shock-rock from girls looking to startle boys, The Bleeding Knees were a local punk outfit that sang outrageous songs about the beautiful act of sexual gratification. From the hilarious description of appendages to stories of oral and acrobatic antics, no stone was left unturned in their quest to get the dance floor packed with amorous boys and girls.
Many years later, we played in a band called The Summer Nationals back in the mid-1990s. A group that featured Whirling Dervish guitarist, Bob Ardrey, and drummer John Bryan, along with Karen on bass and myself on guitar. But since those heady days, everyone has gone their separate ways. Some have gone onto great musical triumphs, and some have gone onto other life ambitions. But the one main thing I can recall is the fact that everyone had some sort of drive and ambition that would take them to different levels of success. Karen was one of those. She continued to immerse herself in original music, writing and playing whenever she could and bringing her specific brand to the original scene.
I last visited the world of Karen Mansfield back in 2014 when she released her eponymous record. That album featured the life experience of an artist who has weathered many personal and professional changes in life and unabashedly details them on this compact thumbnail sketch of life and love. The EP was produced by Rob Tanico (Mr. Reality, Highway 9) and marked his first effort as a producer. As a writer and player, he has shared time with artists such as the Jonas Brothers, Val Emmich, and Alex Brumel. Mansfield has also enlisted some key scene players on this disc, and musicians such as P.K. Lavengood, Dave Halpern, Bob Butkowski and Billy Siegel are all featured on various selections.
But now Karen is back with her first full-length release titled Thistle and Boon. Thistle and Boon represents the spiky and prickly stems of what is required in the growth process of an artist that has faced hardship yet still blooms regally, then blows downy wishes through the skies making everyone run hopeful. As Karen’s bio continues, “hands cupped eager to catch the ones meant for themselves. Boon is the blessing of it all and what will no doubt come from the seeds this album will plant in the hearts and souls of its listeners.”
The record boasts some of the area’s most exceptional players including Karen, Aaron Comess on drums, Jack Daley on bass, Jay Shepard on guitars, Emily Grove on backing vocals, Jimmy Farkas on guitars, Billy Siegal on keys and piano, and Michael Sullivan on guitars.
So, it was with great interest that I spoke to Karen and received her latest record to review here in The Shoreworld. I took a few moments to go through the disc and bring you the excellent points of Thistle and Boon.
`The first track up is called “Lover for the Ride.” Karen’s vocal attack is both smooth and emotionally right on. Guitars are clean and bright, making way for pocketed bass and drums as Karen sings about her need for love and light in her life. The song is laid back and dreamy, bringing memories of Carole King and Janis Ian to mind. Verses are solid and lay into bridges before kicking into addictive choruses. The middle-eight guitar work is sparse and workable, reminding me of Chris Isaak. Karen has a theme with this record, and the instrumentation is some of the finest in the area. A great mix of 1970s gold and bluesy rock and a winner for sure!
`Up next is a song called “The West Side.” Mansfield brings in unique guest guitarist Jimmy Farkas and vocalist Emily Grove for this one. Emily is complementary to just about anyone, and she shines brightly alongside Karen. Acoustic guitars strum alongside bass and drums as Karen sings her ode to life’s lessons as Farkas dazzles with his acoustic lead brilliance. The song itself is an ode to the glory days of rock ‘n’ roll’s gravy days, and as a mid-tempo ballad, it works on many levels. I love the fact that Mansfield utilizes acoustic instrumentation for this tune, cycling each new session with a building quality that encourages the song and keeps it growing without succumbing to boredom and standard rock embellishments. I also love the bridges and verses that come back on themselves to be used as hooks for the piece.
Another interesting song is called “Gone.” Karen slow roasts the listener on this one. Utilizing laid-back instrumentation, acoustic guitars and succinct vocal attack, Mansfield leads her band through a hazy, lazy romp into the best years of rock’s royalty. Vocals are soft and breezy; relationship concentrated and filled with a summery tinge of love and loss. This track also features Billy Siegal on keys and piano, and he does his usual brilliant job for the song. Bass and drums keep things percolating without taking it into a full out rock anthem, and it works like gangbusters. Karen has an original style that leans toward the days of the great female singers of the ‘70s, and it works well. Her tone is warm and welcome, and there’s nothing I don’t like about this song. Electric guitars peek out from under the mix but never take over the focus which is extremely helpful.
Another song I wanted to mention is “New Favorite Thing.” This song is a rocker that features the guitar goodness of Jimmy Farkas and the keyboard wizardry of Billy Siegal. Mansfield doesn’t let you down as she harmonizes with Emily Grove to beat the band. Farkas turns loose with a substantial, old-school James Burton lead break in the middle-eight before Karen and company return to bang the ending into our ears forever and ever. The chorus is excellent and gets to the point in record time. Bass and drums nail it down as Siegal does his thing. Grove is the perfect accompanist for Mansfield, and she does her job with style and grace. Karen scores big on this tune delivering rock ‘n’ roll goodness with attitude and moxie to spare.
I have space to mention one last song, and that would be “Don’t Do.” Utilizing and Marshall Crenshaw/Robert Gordon vibe from “Someday, Someway,” Mansfield and crew sizzle through a few minutes of rock goodness. Clean guitars (Courtesy of Jay Shepard) mix with exponential bass and drums as Karen sings her heart out. This tune is an energetic song, and Mansfield is in fine form for this high-octane rocker. Her lyrical delivery is staccato and filled with emotional brilliance. Once again Mansfield explores life’s quandary’s as she sings to her crowd and it’s a magical ride through the rock ‘n’ roll mystery world. Shepard rips a mean middle-eight lead that centers the song without turning it upside down, and it’s incredible.
Karen Mansfield is a survivor. She has weathered many strange years and still comes out on top with an excellent record and a band that can’t be beaten. I personally cannot wait to see her play this record live as I know it’s going to be a high point of the year. For more information on Karen Mansfield and her fabulous new record, Thistle and Boon, head over to karenmansfield.com.