Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Mark Olson left The Jayhawks after the tour in support of 1995’s Tomorrow The Green Grass, and Gary Louris kept the band going by releasing three albums that featured bassist Marc Perlman & drummer Tim O’Reagan, as well as keyboard player Karen Grotberg on the first two. In the years following the release of Rainy Day Music in 2003, it appeared that The Jayhawks were finished. Olson had been releasing albums with The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers and Louris collaborated with numerous artists, contributing songwriting, guitar & production to various projects. The two of them toured together in 2005, but it would be another four years before they released the collaborative studio album, Ready For The Flood (2009). Although it’s credited to Mark Olson & Gary Louris, and doesn’t feature any other members of The Jayhawks, I’ve decided to include it in this series since their unique harmonies & combined songwriting talents are what brought me to the band in the first place over 20 years ago. Also, without this renewed collaboration, the full-band reunion that took place a couple of years later might never have occurred. I’ll get to that later in this post, but first I want to talk about this collection of mostly low-key acoustic songs that was produced by The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson.
The album opens with “The Rose Society,” all gorgeous acoustic guitars and those inimitable harmonies. It sounds like two guys sitting across from each other (which might have actually been the case in the studio), and even though there aren’t any killer hooks it’s a pretty way to start things off. “Bicycle” moves along at a slow, deliberate pace, and the 5-note guitar riff at “Hallelujah” sounds like early-‘70s Pink Floyd. I love the weepy-sounding guitar figure in the chorus (“It’s hard to ride at night…on your bicycle, with no lights to guide”). The melancholy & beautiful “Turn Your Pretty Name Around” is one of four songs here that previously appeared as part of the “Mystery Demos” on the Legacy Edition of Tomorrow The Green Grass. It was a highlight there and it’s even better here, with the sing-along chorus immediately grabbing me and those lead harmony vocals both uplifting & heartbreaking.
“Chamberlain, SD” is one of the most upbeat songs, sounding like a cross between The Band, The Grateful Dead & Creedence Clearwater Revival, and “dragging Missouri River” is a particularly memorable refrain. I like the bluesy feel throughout the song. “Doves And Stones” is peppy & jangly, with a hint of ELO’s Jeff Lynne in that strong acoustic guitar sound, and Bob Dylan’s storytelling is an obvious influence. I love how it shifts to slower & sparser at “Without you, my true love, I’ll never whisper low.” “My Gospel Song For You” is softer, with pretty guitar work & organ washes, and great vocals at “I need you, I need you, once a rainbow came into town.” “When The Wind Comes Up” features a tremendous high harmony from Louris at “Stay…it’s all I seem able to desire,” and the guitar playing shows a British folk influence. “Bloody Hands” has a more hillbilly/bluegrass feel, with a catchy melody & nice banjo. “What the mind forgets the soul retains, all my love’s in vain” is one of the strongest lyrics Olson & Louris have ever written. This is another of those songs that originally appeared on the “Mystery Demos” disc I mentioned earlier.
Two other songs previously included with the “Mystery Demos” appear here in newly recorded versions as bonus tracks: “Precious Time” and “Cotton Dress.” The former is a slow ¾ shuffle with a great hook at “Wasting all his precious time, wasting all his time, every one, never wondering why.” It’s a simple showcase for their melodic & harmonic gifts. The latter comes across like two guys singing together on a back porch (“There’s…a little baby…sitting down on her daddy’s knee…in a worn out cotton dress”). The five songs I haven’t mentioned are mostly understated & not as memorable as the others. Of course, it’s always nice hearing their voices singing together, even on the lesser songs. Ready For The Flood is unlikely to win over many new listeners, but other than their acknowledged Jayhawks classics (Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass) it’s as good an entry point into the world of Olson & Louris as anything they’ve released. Coming fourteen years after their last recorded collaboration, it’s a cause for celebration and further evidence of their greatness.
Later that same year, Sony Music released the wonderful Jayhawks compilation, Music From The North Country (2009). This collection includes one disc of album tracks, one disc of rarities and a DVD with seven music videos & two EPK’s (Electronic Press Kits) used to promote Hollywood Town Hall and Sound Of Lies. I bought the Best Buy exclusive edition which includes a bonus CD with five more rarities. For anyone unfamiliar with them, the first disc is a well-balanced introduction to their music, featuring two tracks from Blue Earth, four each from Hollywood Town Hall, Tomorrow The Green Grass & Rainy Day Music and three each from Sound Of Lies & Smile. It’s hard to quibble with the song selection, and the nearly-one-hour DVD makes for some enjoyable viewing. Since I was already familiar with all of their albums, the main selling point of this compilation for me is the bonus tracks and there are plenty of good ones, making this a great purchase for fans old & new.
The disc opens with “Falling Star” from The Jayhawks aka The Bunkhouse Album, which was a rarity at the time this compilation was released but not a couple of years later when that debut album was finally reissued on CD. “Won’t Be Coming Home” is a 1991 demo that was eventually recorded by Louris’ side project, Golden Smog. It’s all jangly guitars & catchy melodies, and I can’t figure out why the Jayhawks never recorded it beyond this demo. “Stone Cold Mess” is an outtake from the Hollywood Town Hall sessions, and the “cool cool water running down my back” refrain was later co-opted into “A Break In The Clouds” from Smile. Here it’s a country rave-up with Louris’ guitar mimicking a pedal steel. “Lights” was their contribution to the Sweet Relief benefit album for Olson’s wife, Victoria Williams, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It’s a pretty good song with an early ‘70s Rolling Stones vibe and an awesome Louris guitar solo. “Break My Mind” was the b-side of “Bad Time,” and was written by J.D. Loudermilk (who wrote a number of hits in the ‘60s & ‘70s, including a song that was a favorite in my household when I was a kid: “Indian Reservation” by Paul Revere & The Raiders). It’s a peppy country-rock tune with a cool piano solo from Grotberg. “Get The Load Out” is a stomping rocker that has a similar feel to a classic from my teenage years, Cheap Trick’s “Gonna Raise Hell” (mixed with some loose Crazy Horse-esque vocals).
“Poor Little Fish (Early Version)” is a slightly weirder & more experimental version of a song that later appeared on Sound Of Lies. It was a highlight of that album for me, and I also enjoy this alternate strangeness. “Cure For This” is a moody ballad co-written by Louris & Perlman, both of whom acknowledged the influence of Nick Cave (an artist whose catalog I hope to revisit & write about here in the not-too-distant future). There’s not much in the way of melodic hooks here, but the cool spacey keyboards provide an interesting atmosphere & Louris’ lead vocals are typically strong. “I Can Make It On My Own” is a demo that was a contender for Smile. It’s sad but uplifting, features wonderful harmonies by Grotberg & O’Reagan, and includes church-y organ & a searing guitar solo. I would have loved to hear a fuller production, but as is the song is captivating. Of the five songs on the Best Buy bonus disc, only “Everybody Gets By” would have been a worthy inclusion on the main rarities disc. It’s a radio session from Atlanta, Georgia in 1993, and it’s clearly a work in progress as they introduce it as “something we haven’t even written a bridge for yet.” I love the way Louris & Grotberg harmonize in call-and-response to Olson’s lead vocals. The remaining rarities all have their charms but none of them come across as lost classics, and only a couple of them are worth noting. “Rotterdam” is an early version of “All The Right Reasons” that has a more childlike feel than the album version, and reminded me of some of those under-produced mid-period Beach Boys songs. “I Think I’ve Had Enough” is a solo home demo from Louris that shows an obvious Bob Dylan influence: I kept hearing elements of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” each time I played it. It’s easy for me to recommend Music From The North Country. Whether you own all the albums but want to delve further, or if you just want to have a disc of highlights from their catalog, it has something for everyone.
In January 2011 I finally saw The Jayhawks for the first time, when they performed all of Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass on consecutive nights at Webster Hall in New York City (I attended the latter show). That concert reinvigorated my love of the band, and the timing was perfect because later that year the reunited lineup of Olson, Louris, Perlman, Grotberg & O’Reagan released an album of new material, Mockingbird Time (2011). I own the Deluxe Edition, which includes two bonus tracks as well as a DVD with a 25-minute documentary (featuring an interview with Olson & Louris as they discuss the history of the band up to & including the reunion), three in-studio rehearsals of songs from the new album and one archive performance of “King Of Kings” from a soundcheck in 1985. The DVD is a nice extra but not something I’ll return to multiple times. The album, however, is a worthy successor to everything Olson & Louris had previously done together. It may not be as top-to-bottom brilliant as their two ‘90s classics, but at least 8 or 9 of these 14 songs are excellent additions to their catalog. Surprisingly they begin a little slowly, as the midtempo, string-laden pop-country-rock song “Hide Your Colors” is pleasant & tightly arranged, but the only strong hook is “You shouldn’t hide…your colors.” “Closer To Your Side” is a peppy acoustic tune with rolling piano & great harmonies. The verses are inviting, with more than a hint of early-‘70s Cat Stevens, and the chorus (“Closer to your side I’ll walk with you tonight”) is especially strong. “Cinnamon Love” was an instant favorite: a driving rocker with a great descending guitar figure, loose harmonies, a killer groove and fantastic vocals (where Olson & Louris sing completely different overlapping lines).
The jangly pop perfection of the Byrds-influenced “She Walks In So Many Ways” would’ve been a perfect choice for a single, had they chosen to release one. It’s short, super-catchy & radio friendly. “High Water Blues” is a cool, raunchy rocker with a steady 4/4 beat and both voices singing in high harmony. I like how it comes down during the extended instrumental sections with some fast acoustic guitar picking. It might be a little long at 5+ minutes but it’s probably a highlight of their live shows. “Mockingbird Time” is a slow moving ballad; mostly Olson with Louris harmonizing. It’s packed with several great melodies, most notably at “There’s so much color…in the sky that’s in your eyes,” but it does go on a little too long. “Guilder Annie” is a bouncy waltz with a clear Beatles/Everly Brothers influence. My favorite sections are the bridge with alternating/overlapping vocals (“And/the channels ran”) and Louris’ fiery, psychedelic guitar solo.
“Black-eyed Susan” is a folky ballad that makes the most of its 5-1/2 minute running time. It’s stark & powerful right from the start; a new classic with haunting fiddle & amazing vocals at “Tell us what to do…black-eyed Susan” and “This is going to be a dark road.” “Pouring Rain At Dawn” has lovely guitar picking, a la Led Zeppelin’s “Bron-Yr-Aur,” with added country flourishes & incredible harmonies (“I don’t want to be ungrateful, I don’t want to be unfaithful”). The other songs, including the bonus tracks, all feature tight arrangements and wonderful vocal performances, but other than some standout sections they often feel incomplete. The hit-to-miss ratio, though, is incredibly high, and particularly impressive considering how long it had been since this group of musicians wrote & recorded together.
I read recently that Olson has returned to his solo career and indicated that The Jayhawks reunion was a one-time occurrence. I certainly hope that’s not the case, but if Mockingbird Time turns out to be their swan song they’ve gone out on a high note. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about another reunion a few years down the road, or at least a reconnection of the Olson/Louris partnership. I went into this series as a huge fan of their two most successful albums (Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass), with only a vague knowledge of the rest of their catalog. After spending an enjoyable month revisiting their discography I’ve reignited my passion for their music, with a much greater appreciation of the work Louris did keeping the band alive in the wake of Olson’s departure. The Jayhawks deserve to be much more highly regarded than they are, but I’m proud to be part of their devoted fan base, and hopefully this series will inspire others to explore their music. I hope to hear from anyone who’s been touched by them, whether you’re a longtime fan or someone who’s only recently discovered them. Thanks to everyone who’s stopped by & shared their comments. If you’ve enjoyed this series even half as much as I have, it’s been a complete success. Stay tuned for my next artist…coming soon.