[22 September 2011]
After forming in 1985, the Jayhawks took some time—but few albums—to develop their memorable sound. After the self-titled debut, the group released Blue Earth, which showed their growth as songwriters, but they wouldn’t reach their pinnacle for a few more years. Hollywood Town Hall came out in 1992 with the aesthetic fully developed; the group had a country rock sound, but its own idiosyncratic version, most notable for the vocal harmonies provided by Mark Olson and Gary Louris. The group refined this approach, and 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass showed the band in top form, able to rock and reflect without sacrificing either. The album was a masterpiece, and the single “Blue” became a benchmark song for the group. Then, largely due to a family medical issue, Olson left the line-up.
The Jayhawks continued with Louris at the front, pushing their sound more into pop-rock for a few albums before the rootsier Rainy Day Music. The albums maintain a high quality, but they are clearly of a different era from the earliest releases. When Louris and Olson finally reunited after more than a decade for their Ready for the Flood album, it wasn’t as the Jayhawks. Instead, they put together a simple, acoustic album that was as particular as it was strong, and gave fans hope for a full reunion. The band got back together with Olson and Louris for a new release, and it was hard not to be optimistic. Unfortunately, while Mockingbird Time shows hints of the group’s old energy and craft, it ultimately disappoints.
The album opens promisingly enough—the riffing on “Hide Your Colors” and the vocal entry suggest a sound that’s neither a full departure from nor indebted to the band’s past. The lyrics have a direct message but with lyrics just oblique enough to warrant digging into. There’s a maturity to the performance, but with just enough grit to stick. “Closer to Your Side” sticks a little more to the band’s peak-era sound and could have come out 15 years ago, which isn’t exactly a complaint.
The album starts to slip with “Tiny Arrows”. The bluesy opening slows the pace a little and makes a nice change of tone, adjusting the setting from a porch to a western bar. But the music starts to drag over the course of the track’s six minutes, a development made worse by the lyrics ultimately falling into a complete mess: “I didn’t know those tiny arrows made of metal pierce the heart”. The sentiment would be bad for its triteness alone, but it’s almost unimaginable that good songwriters would produce something so silly. The arrows are, obviously, metaphorical, but it should still be apparent that they’d have perforatory power. The moment fails to deliver high plains heartbreak; instead, it shatters the illusion of the song, which had already been weakened by its length and pacing.
After that track, the album never quite regains solid footing. Most of the remaining tracks are fine, but only just. “High Water Blues” provides a nice bump with a high energy performance. There’s a metaphorical level to this song, too, but it also works as a straightforward disaster song. The hammer/nail simile here (“I was bent upside-down”) works as a wry comment, and by the time we get to the shouted “Take it on the chin”, the performers have earned that moment, and it fits formally. It’s an odd moment, somewhere between rallying cry and catharsis, but the strangeness within the familiar language is a large part of why it works so well.
Nothing else on the disc fares so well, and some of the cuts offer further stumbles. “Stand out in the Rain” suggests a ponderous importance it never delivers on. It’s weighty without being significant. The other precipitation song, “Pouring Rain at Dawn” works by keeping everything in a folkie mode that allows the emotion to come through the placid delivery. It’s conversational and effective.
“Black-Eyed Susan” benefits from the delayed rhyme in its opening couplet, expected because of the familiarity of the titular phrase but surprising in the timing of the line. The Jayhawks provide nice atmosphere here, and the lead guitar does subtle but important work. Again, though, it’s paced too slowly for its length and isn’t compelling enough to sustain itself.
It’s not the band sounds unenthused or unenergetic on this album. The group’s earnestness is clear and the deliveries are solid, but the material isn’t what it should be. The songs and arrangements are too heavy. A few freewheeling tracks would have loosened things up and made the songs stuffed with Something To Say matter. As it is, Mockingbird Time hangs on investing in the sound of import without a commensurate reward.
It’s so odd, then, that “Hey Mr. Man” closes the album. It’s not a silly song, but it bounces, echoing the sort of country-rock the band was likely influenced by. The track, despite not being great, captures that Jayhawks style that makes a song sound simultaneously unique and something you’ve known for decades. It’s a solid way to finish, but it’s a shame that more of this attitude hadn’t filtered into the rest of the disc.
The Jayhawks’ return is a loaded moment full of expectations, but this album’s undone not by the weight of history, but by its own weight. The artist have the skill and style to create more great art, but on Mockingbird Time, the stigma of great art is too present. Still, Olson and Louris are back together, and we can hope that it doesn’t take a decade before we see their next work. Cranking something out off the cuff might be just what they need to do.