It’s nigh impossible to predict an artist or band’s legacy based on sales figures alone. Used bookstores are cluttered with forgotten paperbacks from the ‘50s with covers that exclaim the hundred of thousands, or often millions, of copies sold. And for every Velvet Underground that rises like a phoenix from the ashes of indifference and obscurity, there are scores of late-night TV-sold compilations of bands that seemed invincible, inescapable, on top of the world, but have been mercifully returned to the dust. The Jayhawks, bearing zero similarities with either the Velvets, or, let’s say, Hoobastank, seem even harder to figure than most, though the lavish Music From the North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology feels dead certain that the band was, as PD Larson writes in the liner notes, “one of the best American bands of the last quarter century”. Whether or not another decade or two proves this to be true, the compilation puts forth a strong argument.
In invoking the Velvets or any number of flash-in-the-pan chart-toppers, I mean to establish a couple points about the Jayhawks. Though co-singer/songwriter Gary Louris has stated that “we always thought we were doing something really original”, and they were, the band did so more strictly within the confines of traditional songcraft and classicist musical virtues than even most of their so-called “alt-country” progenitors or followers, from Jason & the Scorchers to Uncle Tupelo. The second point is that, from the beginning, the Jayhawks wrote and performed songs that could never have captured the youth-driven pop-music zeitgeist. A love of Gram Parsons, the Band, and Everly Brothers-grade harmonies is not a surefire ticket to mainstream success. Neither is their decided lack of pomp, irony, or angst. The Jayhawks have always felt like grown-up music, often doled out with much energy and flair, but grown-up music nonetheless.
The first disc of North Country takes the requisite chronological tour through the band’s official recorded history, and kicks off with one of the band’s most beloved songs. “Two Angels” made the cut for both 1989’s Blue Earth and, in re-recorded form, the Jayhawks’ 1992 breakthrough Hollywood Town Hall. This collection presents the older version of the song. It contains all of the fundamental elements of the Jayhawks sound in seed form, from Louris’s distinctively twangy lead guitar to the indelible harmonies. Although most of the songs from the first half of the band’s history were credited to both Gary Louris and Mark Olson, it’s usually not too difficult to determine the primary songwriter. “Two Angels” is clearly Olson’s jam, opening with plaintive harmonica and his warbly vocals raining through Louris’s sunnier timbre. It’s a classic slice of Midwestern country rock, evoking tall grass, big skies, honeysuckle-lined rural lanes, even as the lyrics hint at trouble: “Two angels / one bad end / this lifetime’s easy / way back home there’s a funeral.”
Louris’s shimmering “Waiting for the Sun”, from Hollywood Town Hall, sounds uncannily like Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, released the following year, and even features Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on piano. The song showcases the pop smarts and catchiness that played foil to Olson’s more esoteric bent. That engine, the magnetic opposites of Louris and Olson, ultimately led to two classic albums, the aforementioned Hollywood and 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, before Olson departed, just as the band seemed to be taking off. The songs from those albums are the highlights of North Country’s first disc, from the propulsive melancholia of “Settled Down Like Rain” to the all-out classics “Blue” and “I’d Run Away”. The second half of the disc covers the post-Olson period, which veered away from the original template right away, with 1997’s Sound of Lies. While songs like “Trouble”, a co-write between Louris and founding Jayhawk Marc Perlman, and 2003’s jangly “Angelyne” (from Rainy Day Music), possess the kind of rough-hewn elegance and craftsmanship that is to be expected, the band never quite recaptured the magic of its early days. The second half of disc one sounds at times like a completely different band, not because of the stylistic growth and experimentation that all long-running bands are due, but because of the giant hole created by Olson’s absence. Imagine McCartney being credited to the Beatles, or A.M. to Uncle Tupelo.
The second disc, available as part of the deluxe edition, features rare, mostly unreleased material, laid out in the same chronological fashion, from the country hopalong “Falling Star”, from the band’s long out-of-print 1986 self-titled debut, and a cover of Victoria Williams’s “Lights”, from the successful 1993 Sweet Relief tribute album, to demos and rough takes of later Louris compositions. The liner notes provide rich, if a little fawning, commentary and history on each song. The disc is mostly home to treasures, including an early demo of “Won’t Be Coming Home”, a song which would later surface on a Golden Smog record; a pair of Tomorrow the Green Grass b-sides; and some late-period gems (“In the Canyon”, the Dylanesque “I Think I’ve Had Enough”). Still, it’s hard not to feel the schism at the disc’s halfway point, no matter how qualified and lovely the post-Olson work. Rounding out Music From the North Country is a DVD featuring videos ranging from the earnest (“Waiting for the Sun”) to the bizarre (“Blue”) to the supremely cheeky (“Big Star”), as well as revealing electronic press kits for Hollywood Town Hall and Sound of Lies that provide insight for fans into how labels promote their artists.
Whether as a single or deluxe edition, it’s clear from the contents of each that the Jayhawks are a more than worthy band for anthologizing. For someone bold enough to invest in either set without having heard of or from the Jayhawks, it could prove revelatory. For fans of either period, or both, the 20-song rarities disc is a welcome gift. As both Olson and Louris have come together in recent years to collaborate on each other’s solo work, and teamed up as a duo (though not under the Jayhawks name) and for a few shows, who knows what the future holds? Regardless, Music From the North Country aptly demonstrates that the band’s past, their legacy, exists in fine, well-loved and well-documented form.