Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
As I’ve mentioned in my two previous posts, the appeal of The Jayhawks for me was always based on the unique vocal harmonies of co-founders Mark Olson & Gary Louris. When Olson left the band after the tour for Tomorrow The Green Grass, it was hard to imagine them continuing without him, but Louris did just that, eventually releasing three albums of new material as The Jayhawks. These records all feature longtime members Marc Perlman (bass) & Karen Grotberg (keyboards) along with drummer Tim O’Reagan, so it’s not like a Louris solo project under the band’s name. In fact, the group had every right to continue under his leadership, but until the last 10 days I never really gave those albums a fair appraisal because of my stubborn belief that it’s not really The Jayhawks without both Louris and Olson. It took some time and multiple listens, but I’ve finally come around to this era of their career; I just needed to think of this version of the group as a separate entity & not judge these records against my unreasonable expectations. I don’t think these will ever be my go-to Jayhawks albums (Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass are the gold standard) but there’s a whole lot of incredible music on all three records. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many people who prefer this version of the band, which eschewed the country leanings of much of their earlier material in favor of the rock & pop side of their personality.
The first release by this new incarnation, Sound Of Lies (1997), is a drastic departure from anything they’ve previously done. There’s a darker tone throughout most of the material, as Louris was dealing with his professional split from Olson as well as issues in his personal life. Couple that subject matter with a collection of songs that run a little longer than necessary (five of the twelve tracks clock in between 5 & 6 minutes long, when edited versions might have had more impact) and you have the makings of an indulgent, navel-gazing commercial & critical flop. Louris is too strong a singer, songwriter & guitarist, though, and those qualities offset the other minor shortcomings. The moody, midtempo “The Man Who Loved Life” starts things off with tasteful bass & piano from Perlman & Grotberg, respectively. The choruses have a more driving, Beatles-influenced feel, with Grotberg’s harmonies a standout feature, and I love the “ooh-la-la” vocals at “Served by different stories, am I living in your dream?” Louris delivers the latest in a long line of tasty guitar solos. The guitars have more bite on “Think About It,” and I love the chugging rhythm and “ooh-ooh-ooh” vocals during the intro. Lyrically it’s one of the darkest songs they’ve recorded, but they still manage to deliver a lilting melody at “All the red eyes in the room” and “A little less than pleased.” Also, I love his extended vocal inflection on “about” during the chorus: “Think abooouuut it…once, take your time, don’t fuss.”
The post-breakup ballad “Trouble” returns to the Americana vibe they’re best known for, with acoustic guitars & tight harmonies. “It’s better than being along” is a melancholy yet powerful hook, and the soaring guitar solo is one of the most emotionally satisfying I’ve ever heard from him. Grotberg really shines on “Stick In The Mud,” a slow waltz-like tune with a subtly catchy refrain (“Slow, steady wins the race”) and another melodic hook at “You’ve got me down on my knees, begging you please don’t leave.” “Big Star” is an upbeat, jagged rocker where Louris refers to himself as “a has-been at a mere 35.” The lyrics, including the awesome chorus of “But I’m gonna be a big star…someday,” could be heard as self-referential or possibly an homage to the ahead-of-their-time brilliant power-pop band, Big Star. “I’m perfecting the finest art of wasting hours” is a particularly sharp line. “Sixteen Down” is a hushed, melancholy tune with Matthew Sweet adding some vocals to the mix. Although it’s a little long and the verses don’t really impress me, this one’s a keeper because of the off-kilter chorus, with “Now the blue has turned to red…” offset by the group vocals of “Oooh, Madeline…Madeline breathe.” “Dying On The Vine” is the longest song and packs in some memorable melodies over its nearly 6-minute running time. I really like the high rumbling bass line & syncopated groove, as well as the hooks at “Hurry up, hurry up, it’s late…” and “Babe, scared of you, scared of you,” and Louris’ biting guitar work.
The remaining songs have some parts I like but don’t work from start-to-finish. The chorus of “Poor Little Fish” (“poor little fish, swimming in the water”) is much more subtle than the section with Louris’ falsetto at “up into the sky,” which is really the de facto chorus. “Bottomless Cup” is O’Reagan’s first lead vocal performance on a Jayhawks album (he has a few more coming up on the next couple of albums), and his weary, slightly raspy drawl isn’t quite distinctive (yet) but he reminds me a bit of Gerry Rafferty. “It’s Up To You” has a strong chorus (“You know, you know it’s up to you”) but is otherwise a standard country-tinged rocker with a maudlin feel. Overall, Sound Of Lies is a pretty strong album when not held up against the classics that came before it, and at least a handful of these songs would be worthy inclusions on a Jayhawks anthology. Since I’ll be discussing just such a release in my next post, I look forward to seeing if I agree with their song choices.
For Smile (2000), they turned to producer Bob Ezrin, who’s best known for working on classic albums by Alice Cooper, Kiss, Pink Floyd & Lou Reed (among many others). At first I wasn’t sure how that pairing would work, but Ezrin helped bring a brightness & energy to this album that was lacking on its predecessor. In addition to returning members Louris, Perlman & O’Reagan (as well as second guitarist Kraig Johnson, who appeared on Sound Of Lies), keyboardist Jen Gunderman appears in the credits & band photo, although apparently she joined after the album was recorded with Grotberg & stayed with them through the subsequent tour. The album begins with the title track, “Smile”; its soft pre-chorus (“chin up, chin up, you don’t really have a problem”) leading into a glorious power-pop chorus (“Smile…when you’re down and out”) with subtle string section accompaniment. “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” was a minor hit single, recalling Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers as well as then-current artists like The Wallflowers. Again there’s a nice pre-chorus (“I’ll never be all you want me to, but that’s alright”) leading into a super-catchy chorus (“…I’m gonna dry your tears”), as well an excellent bridge (“When you were a little girl”) with strong vocals from Louris.
“What Led Me To This Town” has a slowly insistent groove with programmed percussion and lovely “ooh ooh ooh” female vocals. “Blue lights shining over my life” is essentially the chorus, and it’s a good one. “Somewhere In Ohio” is a slow-grower but eventually became one of my favorites, even though it’s pretty far from what I’ve come to expect from The Jayhawks, especially that upbeat programmed rhythm track. I love the “ba-ba-ba-ba” vocal hook as well as “Look out Joe, I think the sky is falling.” Another un-Jayhawks sounding track is “Queen Of The World,” a brief song that could be any number of late-‘90s alternative-pop bands (like Deep Blue Something or Semisonic), especially in the chorus: “Take me to the place I never go, you send me kisses made of gold.” As someone with a soft spot for some of that era’s artists, I like this song a lot, and I appreciate its brevity. “A Break In The Clouds” is a half success for me, with generic verses but really nice choruses: “Every time that I see your face, it’s like cool cool water running down my back.”
“Better Days” is set to a slow, dirge-like groove but the music is inviting. I love those “I’ve seen better days” harmonies in response to Louris’ lead vocals, and “Too late…for hope…but a dream remembered” is simply gorgeous. This is a hidden gem that should’ve been placed earlier on the album. “Broken Harpoon” has an interesting atmosphere, with bubbling synths sharing space with pretty acoustic guitar strumming & picking and a good string arrangement. “Once it was around my schoolboy days” is another strong hook on an album filled with them. “Pretty Thing,” which is sung by O’Reagan, has a dirty little groove; slightly funky but with an obvious debt to the Rolling Stones. There are some great guitar tones throughout the song, and “You’re such a pretty thing…I taught you everything you know” is a solid chorus. The production on “Mr. Wilson” is a little over-the-top, but I found it growing on me with each listen (and will probably like it even more in the future). The verses are merely pleasant, with a light shaker providing the rhythm, but the choruses add strings, Mellotron (oh how I love the sound of a Mellotron), heavier programmed drums and a solid hook at “Can’t you see my guardian angel looking over me?” The remaining songs are good but not worth delving into. Smile ended up being a much more accessible album than Sound Of Lies, but the production sheen on the former might be a deterrent to some listeners while the latter’s darker atmosphere would make it more of a fan favorite over time. The important thing is that they each achieve something different, showcasing various aspects of the band, and I’m happy to see that Louris continued pursuing new sounds on each release.
By the time they recorded Rainy Day Music (2003), The Jayhawks were reduced to a trio of Louris, Perlman & O’Reagan, with a handful of notable guests like Matthew Sweet, The Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan, Chris Stills (son of CSN’s Stephen Stills) and former Eagle/Flying Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon. The album was produced by Ethan Johns, a multi-instrumentalist who’s worked with a number of well-known artists like Kings Of Leon, Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne & Laura Marling. He was the perfect choice for this album, which is a return to the folkier, more acoustic sounds of their earlier work, and probably the best place for fans of that era who might have lost interest by the late-‘90s to hop back on board the Jayhawks train. “Stumbling Through The Dark” is a pretty, simple & short jangly folk-pop tune with banjo and super-catchy melodies; a perfect album opener. “Tailspin” is a Dylan-influenced folky rock song with a great pre-chorus (“You’re going down, baby baby”) and stellar chorus (“You’re in a tailspin, running out of your head”). Bernie Leadon’s banjo is a highlight, as is Louris’ Neil Young-ish lead guitar. “All The Right Reasons” is immediately captivating, and one of the strongest songs here. It’s perfectly arranged, beginning all acoustic with no percussion and slowly adding on layers. I love Louris’ aching vocals at “As I lay upon my bed, I began dreaming,” as well as the hushed harmony at “I don’t know what day it is, I can’t recall the seasons…”
I love the sparse guitar figure above a subtle percussive groove on “One Man’s Problem.” It features a light pop melody with Louris’ high voice (“Just another Saturday, time she keeps slipping awaaaay”) and a nice little chorus (“I don’t expect you to see, but she’s important to me, babe, I guess it’s just one man’s problem”). O’Reagan sings lead on two songs. The first, “Don’t Let The World Get In Your Way,” could pass for an early acoustic David Bowie song, with the slightly eerie Chamberlain organ providing a light psychedelic vibe. His other contribution, “Tampa To Tulsa,” has hints of folk-rock icon Roy Harper, especially in his yearning vocals. It’s a quiet yet strong tune with some nice melodies; “Please…don’t ask, take my love and make it last” is my favorite part. “Save It For A Rainy Day” was released as a single and should have been a hit. It’s a nice pop nugget with instantly catchy melodies and those great “so saaad” harmonies. Louris’ harmonica playing is impassioned, as is his brief guitar solo. “Come To The River” has a bubbly chorus (“If you wanna taste the water you gotta come to the river”) and simple verses that are elevated by some nice lap steel guitar.
[The Jayhawks – “Angelyne”]
I couldn’t resist the jangly, George Harrison-esque guitar figure in “Angelyne,” a throwback to ‘70s soft country-rock. It features a great little folky chorus (“Angelyne, forgive me, we threw it all away”) and the melody at “Hopes haunt me like ghosts” & “Snowflakes make your bones ache in the winter” is really sweet. “Madman” is carried along by syncopated percussion (shaker, claves, wood blocks, etc.) and sweetened with both acoustic & a weeping steel guitar. The harmonies here are huge, with hints of Eagles, Poco & America. It’s a good song that’s elevated by the arrangement & strong performances. “You Look So Young” is another slow-moving song with nice acoustic strumming, pretty “oooh” harmonies and Louris’ high “you look so young” vocals. It shifts to a cool driving groove at the bridge (“When will you ever learn”) that leads into a classic searing guitar solo. My copy of Rainy Day Music came with a 6-song bonus disc, including acoustic versions of two album tracks (“All The Right Reasons” & “Tampa To Tulsa”) & a solo Louris performance of the earlier Jayhawks song, “Waiting For The Sun,” all of which are solid but not an essential addition to their catalog. Two of the others are worth noting. “Fools On Parade,” which was released as an exclusive track for a Spanish music magazine, has harmony lead vocals and sounds like a cross between Stealers Wheel (“Stuck In The Middle With You”) and Big Star. “Say Your Prayers” has some sweet, yearning harmonies at “Say…your prayers…before…you go…to bed, my sweet baby.” It’s unsurprising that Rainy Day Music is my favorite of the three albums discussed in this post, as it has most of the elements that initially drew me into the world of The Jayhawks, and it’s also the most timeless sounding of the three.
Honorable mention goes to Live From The Women’s Club, Volumes 1 & 2, two CDs sold at their gigs (as an “Official Jayhawks Bootleg”) which include a complete acoustic show performed by the Louris/Perlman/O’Reagan lineup in 2002, with a handful of studio demos tacked on at the end of each disc. Although I’m not as passionate about this version of the band, it’s hard to complain about hearing these songs in such an intimate setting. The more recent tunes benefit most from these arrangements, although female harmonies are occasionally missed, while the older songs are clearly missing Mark Olson’s contributions. They included a handful of non-Jayhawks songs in their set. “Jennifer Save Me” is a song by Louris’ side project Golden Smog (which also featured Perlman). Even though there’s nothing special about the song in this scaled back setting, it’s a mellow, semi-catchy tune with a good chorus (“If I leave today, see you tomorrow”). Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe,” made famous by Rod Stewart, is a solid cover. Of course, it would be hard to mess up such a great song. A handful of the demos included here are very good: “Desperate Serenade” is a dreamy sounding tune; “Someone Will” is an early version of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” missing that memorable chorus; and “Gypsy In The Mood” is a very brief song with sparse, haunting guitar and Louris’ hushed vocals. Both volumes of this live set are a nice addition to their catalog, but I would only recommend them to someone who’s already an established Jayhawks fan.
Please share your thoughts on this Olson-free portion of their catalog in the Comments section. I’m eager to find out if there are fans who prefer this incarnation of the band. In my next post I’ll wrap up their discography with a renewal of the Olson-Louris partnership and the deluxe edition of their career-spanning compilation. These should make for some enjoyable listening. Thanks for stopping by.