When the Marc Olson fronted Jayhawks performed their first gig in 1985, one of the mere handful of people in the audience was Gary Louris, who met Olson after the show and promptly became the band's lead guitarist (and eventual songwriting partner and co-lead singer with Olson). The band released two commercially unsuccessful indie albums, The Jayhawks and Blue Earth, on Minneapolis’ Twin-Tone label when a stroke of good luck changed the band's fortunes. American Recordings' producer George Drakoulias (also known for his work with The Black Crowes and Tom Petty) was on the phone with Twin-Tone when he heard Blue Earth playing in the background, and he was so taken by what he heard that he signed the band and agreed to produce their major label debut. After having already been together for seven not particularly productive years, Hollywood Town Hall was something of a make or break album, and fortunately they came through with the best album of their career, though commercially speaking it was still only a modest hit. Musically, although dubbed “alt-country” and/or “No Depression” music a la Uncle Tupelo, The Jayhawks are actually more rock and pop than country, though they definitely add a good ol’ country twang here and there. Labeling aside, what matters is that The Jayhawks went major label in fine style on Hollywood Town Hall, a modern day “classic rock” album that owes a debt to kindred spirits such as the Flying Burrito Brothers and Crazy Horse. Gary Louris supplies the fuzzy guitar heroics a la Neil Young, but guest keyboardist Benmont Tench’s atmospheric, soulful playing is equally important (the great Nicky Hopkins also guests on piano), and in fact provides the anchor for the album’s rich, tasty sound, which was crisply recorded by Drakoulias, a true pro. Yet above all else it is the soaring harmony singing of Louris and Mark Olson that makes this band special, making songs such as “Crowded In The Wings,” “Clouds,” and “Take Me With You (When You Go)” uplifting despite being what Rolling Stone called “sweeping tales of down and out underdogs and lovesick underachievers.” “Waiting For The Sun” was even a minor hit whose intro was later stolen by Tom Petty on “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (evening the score, I suppose, for borrowing Tench from his backing band, The Heartbreakers), but "Two Angels" (re-recorded from Blue Earth, as was "Martin's Song"), “Settled Down Like Rain,” and the song about poor old “Sister Cry” would’ve also sounded right at home on the radio (on my radio station, anyway). The album is ragged yet accessible, and beautiful without being corny, with consistently strong songwriting throughout. Perhaps the pace plods a bit in places, and I can see where some people might complain about the band being somewhat "plain," but the band's stirring harmonies and lonesome sound wins me over every time. Every song here ranges from very good to flat-out great, and the band’s fresh sounding update of classic song forms makes for a stellar album loaded with low-key gems.
Tomorrow The Green Grass (American Recordings ’95) Rating: A-
Kicking things off with the perfect pop of “Blue,” arguably their best song, The Jayhawks announce that the brilliantly lush harmonies of Mark Olson and Gary Louris are still intact. However, the scope of Tomorrow The Green Grass far exceeds the narrow reach of Hollywood Town Hall (which was terrific nevertheless), introducing violins on the beautifully sad ballad "Over My Shoulder" and the grandly romantic “I’d Run Away,” which also showcases the piano work and additional vocal harmonies of new Jayhawk Karen Grotberg. Some sizzling guitar adds punch to rockers like “Real Light” and “Miss Williams’ Guitar,” the latter (which should be subtitled "Gary Louris' Neil Young-Inspired Guitar") a rollicking love letter to Olson’s wife, solo performer Victoria (“I remember watching her play, and the whole damned crowd seemed so far away"), while a weary, mournful tone dominates moving ballads such as “Two Hearts” and “Ann Jane.” Almost all of these songs, including their surprising but well done cover of Grand Funk Railroad's “Bad Time,” are extremely catchy, and damn it if those harmonies - among the best ever, in my opinion - don't always manage to brighten my day, no matter how downcast the lyrical content (for example, “Nothing Left To Borrow”). Again, perhaps some of the songs not mentioned can be a little too plain and easily overlooked, but this album is almost as impressive as the smartly compact (10 songs as opposed to this album's more than absolutely necessary 13) Hollywood Town Hall, even more so in some ways as the band veers even further from their original country roots for a poppier and more rocking effort. Simply put, the band has a rich, soulful sound and writes really good songs, and by and large on this entertaining album the band has successfully branched out to the point where they're no longer simply one of the best country rock and/or roots rock bands in America; they’re one of the best rock bands, period.
Sound Of Lies (American ’97) Rating: B
Olson amicably left The Jayhawks after Tomorrow The Green Grass, ostensibly to spend more time with wife Victoria Williams (who suffers from multiple sclerosis) but also because, much like Uncle Tupelo, the band was no longer big enough to contain two flourishing songwriting talents. Surprising some, the band, now including Louris, Grotberg, longtime bassist Marc Perlman, and new members Tim O'Reagan (drums) and Kraig Johnson (guitars), continued onward without Olson, with Louris taking charge. Truth be told, I've always preferred Louris' high-pitched voice to Olson's twangier delivery, but obviously it was the chemistry between the two that made the band special, so I was skeptical about the band's future prospects without Olson. Produced by Brian Paulson, Sound Of Lies is markedly different than its predecessors, as Olson's departure made them a radically different band, with Louris leaning more towards lushly bittersweet ballads and alternately atmospheric and brightly upbeat power pop rather than ragged country rock and pop. Lyrically, Louris alludes to recent breakups, both with Olson and his ex-wife, and as such the album has more of a personal touch, with a moody, introspective overall air of melancholia. The band still has strong harmonies, Grotberg really stepping up on that end, but there's a difference between strong and magical, and I also miss some of the rough edges, as some excitement is sacrificed in favor of a more varied studio enhanced experimentation that doesn't always work. Still, there are some fine songs, particularly on side one, as the moody verses and upbeat "ooh la la" chorus of "The Man Who Loved Life" and the churning riffs of the anthemic "Think About It" get the album off to an outstanding start. Weepers such as "Trouble," "It's Up To You," and "Stick In The Mud" are definite growers as well, while "Big Star" fittingly delivers undeniably catchy power pop and "Haywire" is likewise quite singable. However, the album is a bit too ballad heavy and Louris wasn't quite ready to pick up the songwriting slack all by himself for a full album’s worth of material, as several of these mostly downcast tunes lack distinctiveness. Still, I suppose that a somewhat inconsistent result was to be expected given that this was a transformed band searching for a new direction, and as such this was a solid transitional album that enabled the band to move forward onto subsequent (artistic) successes. Alas, the album's timing was poor, as American Recordings folded into Warner Bros. at the time of its release, and Sound Of Lies died a quick commercial death due to poor promotion. One might say "no promotion," actually, and the album was even out of print for awhile, though I'm sure you can find it online now if you look hard enough. Smartly, rather than embark on a tour behind an album that was DOA, the band instead started immediately writing songs for their audaciously named follow up, Smile.
Smile (American ’00) Rating: B+
Although sound-wise this is a continuation of and an improvement on the lush pop of Sound Of Lies, thematically the albums are polar opposites, as Louris has obviously turned the corner emotionally. Songs such as “Smile” and “I'm Gonna Make You Love Me” (quote that should by all rights come across as totally cornball but somehow doesn't: “I’m gonna make you love me, I’m gonna dry your tears, and we’re gonna stay together for a million years”) are so upbeat and pretty that they can’t help but make you feel good, and though there are moodier songs as well, by and large this is a “feel good” kind of album that offers consistent quality even if, like its predecessor, it has few obvious high points that smack you in the face. Still, there’s much to chew on here, as, much like their buddies in Wilco did with Summerteeth, there are layers to these lush (at times psychedelic) pop nuggets that reward repeat plays, though legendary producer Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Kiss, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed) sometimes has an overly heavy hand. It’s a pity about those drum machines, as the album has an overly mechanized “modern” sound, particularly with regards to the over-emphasized rhythms. Still, though I might not be crazy about the drum sound on “(In My) Wildest Dreams,” for example, its catchy pop chorus and Louris’ revved up guitar (which appears too infrequently for me) more than makes up for it. Elsewhere, the album is perhaps a bit too ‘70s soft rock, with “What Led Me To This Town” and “A Break In The Clouds” recalling Fleetwood Mac, but hey, I like Fleetwood Mac and these songs, and Louris remembers to rock out on “Life Floats By.” Louris receives much more songwriting help this time out, with 2/3 of the album being comprised of co-writes (some with Ezrin who’s anything but a hands-off producer), while Louris and Grotberg’s harmonies again highlight impressive songs such as “Somewhere in Ohio,” “Mr. Wilson,” and “Better Days,” though she would leave the band towards the end of the recording sessions to start a family; she would briefly be replaced by Jen Gunderman. Anyway, the surging power pop of “Baby, Baby, Baby” typifies the band’s solidified pop-centric sound and is a definite highlight, and though the band’s (or Ezrin’s, who by and large does a good job and must receive some of the credit for the band’s increased sophistication) ambitions at times over complicate the country-less proceedings, on Smile - also the name of Brian Wilson’s legendary “lost masterpiece” that was found in 2004 - the band shows that they’re still a relevant proposition post-Olson even if their prime years are likely past.
Rainy Day Music (American ’03) Rating: A-
Or maybe not, as The Jayhawks came full circle on Rainy Day Music, their most country tinged, and perhaps not coincidentally, best album since Olson left the fold. Following Smile Gunderman and Johnson left, leaving Louris, Perlman, O'Reagan, and new guitarist Stephen McCarthy, all of whom worked with producer Ethan Johns and Rick Rubin in returning the band back to their earlier roots. Sound Of Lies and Smile had some fine songs, but it's been a long time since I absolutely adored a Jayhawks song, and I'd rank "Tailspin" and "Save It For A Rainy Day" among the band's very best. Not as simple as it seems but utterly charming, "Tailspin" returns Louris' Neil Young-ish guitar but adds banjo and pedal steel guitar along with delightfully twangy harmonies, while "Save It For A Rainy Day" delivers brilliantly catchy acoustic pop, with stellar Crosby, Stills, & Nash-like harmonies along with another guitar (and harmonica) solo. "Stumbling Through The Dark" and "One Man's Problem" deliver delicate yet lovely ballads, while the airy chorus of "The Eyes Of Sarah Jane" is also quite catchy. "Come To The River" is easily singable as well, while "Angelyne" is a clear highlight, being a first rate acoustic/jangle pop ballad with bittersweet lyrics. Unfortunately, though it too has its moments, like “You Look So Young,” which features tasteful orchestration alongside more gnarly Neil Young-like guitar, the album tails off towards the end, as a bunch of downer ballads strung together start to make the album seem awfully long, an unnecessary reprise of "Stumbling Through The Dark" certainly not helping matters any. Still, aside from the somewhat bland Eagles-ish "All The Right Reasons," the first nine or so songs, including the moodily trippy if somewhat dreary orchestral ballad "Don't Let The World Get In Your Way," are the band's most easily accessible and enjoyable songs in almost a decade. It's a shame that the band had to succumb to the overly long album syndrome that makes so many of today's albums less than they could be, but overall I'm not going to complain too much, as Rainy Day Music contains a nice mix of songs, with plenty of "rainy day" acoustic ballads but also a healthy dosage of loud Louris (and presumably McCarthy) guitar. Most importantly, this is a fine overall batch of songs, as even a later one like "Will I See You In Heaven" can easily tug on the ol' heartstrings. Alas, it appears that this will be the last Jayhawks album, though maybe one day they'll reconsider (and hopefully even bring back Olson; hey, you never know). Until then I guess we'll have to be satiated by Louris, Perlman, and Johnson's participation in the roots rock "supergroup" Golden Smog (other high profile members include Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy), who to date have released Down By The Old Mainstream (1995), Weird Tales (1998), and Another Fine Day (2006). Note: The Jayhawks (with not only Olson but Grotberg as well!) released Mockingbird Time in 2011; I haven’t heard it yet but it’s on my “to do” list of albums I want to review eventually.
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