Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Since I started writing this blog, it’s rare that I get to spend time with albums that I already know extremely well because my focus is on the lesser-played artists in my collection. Obviously I like these artists enough to own most or all of their releases, but until I revisit their discographies & write about the experience, most of the music is relatively new to me. There has been the occasional exception over the last few years, but this past week was the first time I got to focus my attention on two albums I’m already intimately familiar with, and it was fun to hear them in a way that I never have before. I still don’t plan on covering my favorite artists here since there are so many of these under-exposed artists that I want to rediscover, but if I ever change my mind it’s good to know that I can still learn a lot about albums I already love. The two records I’ll discuss in this post were the final releases by the original Gary Louris/Mark Olson-fronted version of The Jayhawks. I’ve owned them since their initial releases and have played them dozens of times over the last two decades. In 2011, Sony released expanded editions of both, which I digitally copied from a friend’s CDs, and I’ll be highlighting the bonus tracks that made the most impact on me as I finally spent quality time with them this past week.
After two albums released on independent labels, The Jayhawks finally got major label backing when they signed with Rick Rubin’s Def American (now known simply as American Recordings, the label that oversaw Johnny Cash’s late-career renaissance), which was distributed by Warner Music Group. In one of the great music industry stories, the president of Twin/Tone Records (which released their sophomore album, Blue Earth) was on a phone call with Def American A&R man George Drakoulias in 1991. With Blue Earth playing in the background, Drakoulias inquired about the music he was hearing and was so enamored with their sound that he signed them later that year, also becoming their producer. The first fruit of this collaboration was Hollywood Town Hall (1992), which is where I initially discovered The Jayhawks. I loved it from the first time I heard it, and more than two decades later I get just as excited every time I play it. The core band of Olson, Louris and bassist Marc Perlman was joined by new drummer Ken Callahan, who was credited as a band member but apparently only played on two songs, while session pro Charlie Drayton handled drumming duties on the rest of the album. Other notable guests were keyboardists Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) and Nicky Hopkins (Rolling Stones), who helped fill in their sound without overpowering it. Opening track “Waiting For The Sun,” which was the first song I ever heard by them, is a striking tune with a great groove, awesome piano & organ accompaniment, and Louris’ distinctive Neil Young-esque high vocals & stellar guitar work. The “walking on down the road…” refrain is one of several catchy sections. The rhythm of this song bears a striking resemblance to Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which wouldn’t be released until a year later. Considering Benmont Tench’s contributions to both recordings, it’s hard to imagine that the similarity is a coincidence. They’re both great songs that go off in their own directions, but it’s still fun to compare & contrast.
Harmonica takes center stage for “Crowded in The Wings,” a slower song with tight harmony lead vocals throughout. The lyrics are a bit obtuse (something that applies to a number of their songs) but it seems to have a lost love/new love theme. I love the shift from melancholy verses to uplifting choruses (“Been crowded in the wings, mostly I don’t mind”). “Clouds” features bouncy drums & a driving rhythm with jangly country-ish guitars. Olson sings lead, with Louris joining for certain lines as well as the chorus (“Can your diamonds talk to you, can you see them shine?”). There are two re-recordings of songs from Blue Earth. Album closer “Martin’s Song” starts with strummed acoustic guitar then gets punchier & tighter than the original version, and Louris’ guitar tone in the solo is sweet & fuzzy. “Two Angels” is also an improvement over its earlier recording; the harmonies sound more confident, and Louris plays some subtly gorgeous guitar. I always find myself singing the line, “Two angels one bad end, this lifetime’s easy, way back home there’s a funeral,” each time I play this album.
The dreamy, slow, hushed verses in “Take Me With You (When You Go)” flow beautifully into the phenomenal choruses (“Each night when I go to bed, I pray…”). Whatever this song is about, it’s powerful & haunting. “Sister Cry” features fuzzy guitar on a loping midtempo beat. The verses are similar to some of their other songs, maybe not as strong, but the choruses are excellent (“Someone come along and carry you down”) with Olson’s voice occasionally breaking off with alternate lyrics, giving the song a unique, offbeat quality. Louris’ guitar channels Neil Young, as it often does, notably at the bridge (“This devil’s knocking at your door”). Interestingly, “Settled Down Like Rain” begins with the line, “You came and you gave without taking,” which is taken verbatim from Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.” The chiming guitar gives this song a particular lightness, and I love the simple & effective chorus (“Knock me down, pick me up, set me in a roooow”). “Wichita” is highlighted by a great little 4-note guitar motif, as well as a cool groove with strummed acoustic, a driving rhythm and those exquisite harmonies. I like the way the first half of the chorus (“La la la, in one morning you will be mi-i-i-ine”) is quieter, with a steady clicking rhythm & more subtle accompaniment. This song is a showcase for Louris; he really shreds here.
[The Jayhawks – “Wichita”]
“Nevada, California” has always been a particular favorite among an album filled with gems. It’s slower & more melancholy than most, with harmonies through the first part of the chorus (“Can you help me to find, Nevada, California?”) giving way to Olson’s solo vocal in the latter part (“The last thing I did, was I tried to hold her”). The Expanded Edition of this album includes five bonus tracks. Three were originally included on a rare promo-only release, while the other two were previously unreleased session outtakes. All of them are enjoyable, but only two are worth noting. “Leave No Gold” is a nearly-6-minute bouncy country rocker with searing guitar work & Louris harmonizing with Olson’s lead vocal. “Up Above My Head” has more of a gospel feel than anything on the album, especially those call & response vocals between Olson & Louris that eventually merge. I hope I’ve adequately conveyed my enthusiasm for Hollywood Town Hall. If possible I love it even more now than I did when it was released, and its timelessness should make it welcoming for future generations just discovering this modern classic. I can’t sing its praises highly enough.
I have several friends whose introduction to The Jayhawks came via their next release, Tomorrow The Green Grass (1995), and they still consider it their favorite. Perhaps it’s just a matter of which album you heard first, since it’s a phenomenal record & a worthy successor. I don’t rate it quite as highly, though, because Hollywood Town Hall was close to perfect while this album has a couple of songs that are merely decent. Of course, it’s hard to complain about a record with a success rate of 11-to-2, and some of their best songs appear here. Before discussing them, I should point out a few tidbits: George Drakoulias returned as producer, Don Heffington became their 5th drummer in four albums but was not part of the band (Tim O’Reagan took over for the subsequent tour and he’s remained with them ever since), and Karen Grotberg joined the band on piano, organ & backing vocals. The addition of her vocals to The Jayhawks’ harmonies set this album apart from the previous three, adding a new dimension to their sound that helped bridge the gap into the post-Olson era (he would leave the band after this album & tour). The first song here, “Blue,” might also be their definitive statement. It’s a mostly acoustic tune that centers on those special Olson/Louris harmonies (which are almost dissonant at times but always inviting). Depending on my mood, this song can seem happy or sad, and I love that ambiguity in the music & the lyrics. I especially love the intertwining harmonies with diverging lyrics in the bridge (“All my life/stand by, Someone I/waiting ‘round”). If someone has never heard The Jayhawks, “Blue” is where they will hear the essence of their sound.
I love how “I’d Run Away” begins with an offbeat, rumbling intro before morphing into a bouncier, barroom piano-infused country-ish rock tune. Louris is the main vocalist with Grotberg providing lovely harmonies. “I could take a hint…from you; I could take a little hint from you” is a particularly strong hook, and Lili Haydn adds some tasty violin & viola. “Miss Williams’ Guitar” is a blissful tribute to Olson’s then-wife, singer-songwriter Victoria Williams.” It’s impossible not to feel his joy when he sings “I remember watching her play, and the whole damn crowd seemed so far away, oh so far away.” There’s also some biting guitar from Louris. “Two Hearts” is a languid-paced ballad with Louris nearly whispering the first verse before higher harmonies come in at “I survive, it’s true…” I love the subtle baritone guitar, and how the song opens up at, “I, I, I, I’m lonely.” “Real Light” is the first outright upbeat rock song, with nice harmonies at “Keep my real light shining.” The verses are only so-so, but the choruses & instrumental parts between each section are special, and Louris tears off a couple of Neil Young-worthy solos. “Over My Shoulder” is another melancholy ballad, with nice violin by Tammy Rodgers. It’s mostly acoustic folk until the drums kick in a minute into the song (“I’ve been looking over my shoulder…”); simply gorgeous. “Bad Time” is a cover of the old Grand Funk Railroad song, and they make it their own. Featuring distinctive backing vocals from Sharleen Spiteri, from Scottish rock band Texas (of whom I was a devoted fan through their first few albums), and moving from Louris’ pleading vocal intro (“I’m in love with a girl that I’m talking about…I can’t live without”) to the harmonized chorus (“I must’ve picked a bad time to be in love”), they achieve pure pop perfection.
[The Jayhawks – “I’d Run Away”]
“Nothing Left To Borrow” begins like an early-‘70s Crazy Horse number before shifting to a steady midtempo groove. “Didn’t you…feel so wise for a while?” is a great pre-chorus that leads to the stellar, simple chorus (“there was nothing left to borrow”). The folky country ballad “Ann Jane” is a half success for me; slightly formless verses followed by a catchy chorus with a unique staggered rhythm (“Ann Jane don’t cry…say that you need someone there, my sister”). “Red’s Song” could pass for a lost song by The Band, and I can easily imagine Levon Helm singing it. There’s a cool rhythmic shift in the chorus (“I, I can’t stop, I can’t stop those flashing reds”), and I really like Louris’ heartfelt lead vocal as well as, appropriately enough, his Robbie Robertson-esque guitar solo. Album closer “Ten Little Kids” has a 45-second intro with a guitar pattern that reminds me of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and then morphs into a stomping country-rock song. It’s a lot of fun but the lyrics are a little dark (“Everybody was talking ‘bout the bad things their moms & dads were doing”; “Never fixed us supper, so we ran her down when we grew up”). That combination of light & shade, where the subject matter doesn’t always match the upbeat nature of the music, is something that appears often in their songs, and it’s one of many qualities that makes them such a special band.
Tomorrow The Green Grass received the deluxe treatment with a 2-CD Legacy Edition. The first disc includes the original album plus six bonus tracks (including one hidden track). The second disc is a real treat, featuring 18 “Mystery Demos,” the first 10 of which were home demos recorded in February 1992 while the others were studio demos recorded with Drakoulias later that year. A few of the Disc 1 bonus tracks are worth mentioning. “Tomorrow The Green Grass,” originally the b-side of “Blue,” has a ‘60s garage rock “Nuggets” vibe with a steady stomping beat. It’s a slightly different sound for them but not out of left field, and the simple chorus is very catchy (“Tomorrow the green grass…yeah, yeah, yeah”). “You And I (Ba-Ba-Ba)” is a slow, folky showcase for “those” harmonies. The “ba-ba-ba” section sounds like a placeholder for something to come later, although it works as is. “Last Cigarette,” the b-side of “Bad Time,” is a barroom country shuffle with Grotberg (I assume) on lead vocals. It could pass for a cover of an old country song and features tasteful ‘50s-ish lead guitar. The hidden track, “Blue From Now On,” is a very early demo of “Blue” in low quality, but all the hallmarks of this classic are already in place. A more fully-realized demo appears on Disc 2.
Speaking of Disc 2, all 18 songs are worth hearing even in their embryonic form. Six would appear on Tomorrow The Green Grass (or among the bonus tracks on Disc 1), four would show up on the 2009 Olson/Louris album, Ready For The Flood (which I’ll include later on in this series) and two would be appropriated by Louris for his Golden Smog side project. The other six, as far as I know, are exclusive to this disc. The following “Mystery Demos” stood out from the others. “Pray For Me,” one of two Tomorrow The Green Grass songs I didn’t discuss above, works much better in this scaled-back version, with only Mike “Razz” Russell’s violin accompanying Olson & Louris. “Won’t Be Coming Home” has some great fingerpicked guitar and a poppy melody. “No Place” has the great “Where is the lady?” harmony vocal followed by Olson mournfully singing “I bet she’s gone away.” “Poor Michael’s Boat” is simply a catchy folk song. “Cotton Dress” is another folky number with excellent harmonies, especially at “Theeeeere’s a little baby…sitting down on her daddy’s knee.” “Bloody Hands” sounds like a murder ballad while somehow remaining upbeat, and I especially love the violin melody. “Up Above The River” has strong acoustic strumming and a great hook at “We smoked the first joint on a trestle bridge.” “Turn Your Pretty Name Around” is probably the highlight of Disc 2 for me; melancholy, sparse & haunting, with harmony lead vocals and a strong repeated refrain of “You’ve gone and let someone turn your pretty name around.” “White Shell Road” is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” and “They don’t know, they don’t know” is a memorable hook.
It’s hard to believe I’ve written as much about these two albums as I’ve often done for twice that number by other artists. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I avoid writing about my favorite artists, because it’s easy to go on & on about music you already know so well. Then again, these two albums are so strong that even if I was just getting to know them for the first time, after spending a week with them I would have been just as passionate about them. I’m not nearly as familiar with the remainder of their catalog, which should make for an enjoyable learning curve the next few weeks. It’s still hard to think about The Jayhawks without the voice & songwriting of Mark Olson, but now I’m about to revisit the three albums released by the Louris-led version of the band. I’m still not sure why I never gave them a fair appraisal in the past, but I’m hoping to find a lot of great music on those records. Join me next time to find out if that’s the case. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing from you about Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass. Which of these do you prefer, and was it the first one you heard? Do you rate them equally, or perhaps prefer their earlier/later releases? Have your feelings on these albums changed over time? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below. Thanks.
I Could never really see why HTH didn’t make them huge, I love that LP
It’s probably because they didn’t fit in with the popular music at the time. They certainly got the promotion they needed, and the entire album is as good as it gets, so it’s just one of those quirks of fate. Glad you agree about the quality of HTH.
I think I used to be afraid of my favourite bands making it huge. It seems to be that mediocrity sells; so if one of my preferred groups starting selling out stadiums, I’d be worried I initially misjudged their quality! I’ve since modified the belief system ‘Mediocrity sells – but every so often, the general public gets it right and buys the good stuff!
I’m in complete agreement. It’s been a long time since I liked a band early on & they eventually became huge. It’s not that I specifically seek out obscure artists, since my tastes are relatively mainstream (& diverse), but I think the market is so segregated now & there are so many places for people to access music that an artist becoming mega-successful is a rarity.
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Both of these albums are brilliant and underrated. I discovered them in college in 1995 upon the release of TtGG, which is still my favorite of theirs. I’m still finding new things in these songs almost 30 years on. I just discovered I’d been misinterpreting some of the lyrics in Pray for Me for all this time until I read them online, and now it’s like a whole new song for me with new meaning. The ambiguity in their lyrics is such a treat.
Thanks for the feedback, Jason. Your comment made me realize I need to focus more on the lyrics, since Jayhawks music for me has always been about the tunes and the voices, especially when it was Gary & Mark doing those one-of-a-kind harmonies.