Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Jayhawks Mockingbird Time 2011

A new Jayhawks record is always welcome, and this time it is the first Jayhawks record featuring both Gary Louris and Mark Olson since 1995's Tomorrow The Green Grass. That's a long time. They also co-wrote all the songs, as they did with the aforementioned Tomorrow... as well as the brilliant major-label debut Hollywood Town Hall, from 1992.

In the interim, Louris, bass player Marc Perlman, drummer Tim O'Reagan and keyboard player par excellence Karen Grotberg made Sound Of Lies 1997, Smile 2000 (Grotberg left after Smile), and Rainy Day Music 2003. All three of those records had things to recommend them, but the magic sparked by the writing, guitar interplay, and vocal harmonies of Louris and Olsen together on the first two is special.

So is this the new Tomorrow The Green Grass or Hollywood Town Hall? The short answer is "no". But it consistently features those remarkable harmonies, and the high points are very much worth hearing, and hearken back to those first two classics from this fine line-up.

Hide Your Colors opens the record with a classic Americana rock ballad, with great harmonies, and their signature minor-key sadness. Closer To Your Side features Grotberg's regal piano and an interestingly awkward lyric that somehow works.The slow, dark ballad Tiny Arrows follows and features a wonderful band arrangement, great guitar-piano interplay, and those otherworldly harmonies. She Walks In So Many Ways is a jangle-pop gem, and the clear choice for lead-off single. Like they're  a pop band. The straight ahead rocker High Water Blues becomes a different song in the acoustic guitar middle jam section, and them bursts back into the hook-laden chorus to finish a great song. The title track is another big ballad in the Americana style they practically invented. One part The Band, one part the country-flavored Van Morrison (or maybe Poco), one part Crosby, Stills and Nash, a dash of folk.

Then begins a stretch of the record that just does not hold up against the rest. Stand Out In The Rain is an overly familiar melody that is barely saved by the instrumental break. The unconventional structure and almost Zappa-like changes of Cinnamon Love don't work. The melody and the lyric of Guilder Annie are both weak, and Black-Eyed Susan is another weak melody, that at least features good band interplay and a nice string quartet arrangement. The last great one on the record, sweet romantic ballad Pouring Rain At Dawn is a gentle roller that makes the most of acoustic guitar and stellar harmonies. Hey Mr. Man ends the record, and it's a bluesy riff-rocker with strange slower sections that make little sense in the context of the song's structure. Or I don't get it.

The first six and Pouring Rain At Dawn. That's seven you really should like, and five others that you might like better than me. The Jayhawks are back. This line-up is the best version of this band, at least based on past product, and this record does not disappoint much. The unique harmonies of Olsen and Louris are very good to hear again. Their writing, when it works (more often than not), is top quality. The record sounds great. I don't think their songwriting is quite at the consistent level it was sixteen years ago, but maybe I'm over-romanticizing the early records.

If you're a Jayhawks fan, I suspect you already own it. It's worth taking a chance on. If you've never heard the Jayhawks, I highly recommend Hollywood Town Hall. Then either Tomorrow's The Green Grass or Rainy Day Music. Then this one. It's in good company.

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