[30 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The mid-‘90s was a tumultuous time for the Jayhawks. On one hand, they were riding the wave of critical success after releasing Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, two of the finest records of the decade. But on the other hand, just about everything else was up in the air. Founding member and half of the band’s songwriting/vocal harmony team Mark Olsen quit the band in 1995 after a year of touring. The band was putting out records on Rick Rubin’s Universal Music off-shoot American Recordings and Olsen was tired of life on a major label and tired of being limited artistically by the label, the situation, perhaps even his bandmates.
Gary Louris, the other half of the songwriting duo at the core of the Jayhawks, found himself without his partner, without the trademark harmonies the band made its name on and, on top of that, his marriage was falling apart. It was the kind of dark time that called for a change, and so Louris and the remaining members of the band—Marc Perlman, Karen Grotberg, and Tim O’Reagan—thought they might just move on from the Jayhawks moniker. Start a new band with a new name. Turns out, though, when a major-label has invested enough money in you, they may not take too kindly to such a change. The Jayhawks was a brand that hadn’t made a ton of money yet, but had potential. And thus they were stuck with the name.
The liner notes in the reissues of the band’s work following this transition—1997’s Sound of Lies, 2000’s Smile, and 2003’s Rainy Day Music—tell the story of a band overcoming this kind of tumult. The Jayhawks, despite past success, were a band in transition, and rather than play it safe, the remaining members used this as a chance to stretch out. The band was, like Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, early Wilco, and others, carrying the albatross of the “alt-country” descriptor around its neck. And if the Jayhawks never got quite as weird as Wilco did, they still pull at the limitations of the silly genre title, and that started with the excellent Sound of Lies.
Without Olsen around to split songwriting or sing along with, Louris used this album to delve into other musical interests outside of country and folk. Sound of Lies reflects a dark time for Louris, but it also belies a playful freedom that came about because of that darkness. “The Man Who Loved Life” makes this clear from the front. The band lures us in with sweet piano notes to open the truck, but those notes stay low, and the drums and bass take on a sinister shuffle behind them. Louris sings with a slight edge, delving into disappointment on lines like, “And if thou shalt give, thou shalt be deceived / The travelling band wasn’t well received.” But it’s the chorus that gets at the complication of this record. It’s big and full, with Louris backed by a heady mix of vocals, strings, and the band at its most shadowy and rattling. It’s an expansive bitterness that works its way to something almost triumphant, that freedom squeezing itself out of the void. The album often pits the crunch of guitars with sweet vocals on “Think About It” and excellent single “Big Star”, and even on the more subdued tensions of “Sixteen Down”. But the true success of Sound of Lies comes in the bright pop experiments that come alongside these cathartic tracks. “Dying on the Vine” scrapes out odd-shaped holes in its hazy chug. The high-flying violins and keening melodies of “Poor Little Fish” is about as purely pop as the Jayhawks had ever been, but they cut into it with scuffling, feedback-laden guitar moments.
Sound of Lies is sometimes as heavy as the title suggests, but that bright cover art is not to be ignored as a signifier either. If the album is, on some level, about Louris’s “double divorce” from Olsen and his wife, then it’s also about what’s left after that, about the resilience of the Jayhawks to press forward and press itself to evolve its way out of a rut. The bonus tracks here continue the expansion of the record, on the hushed Beatles-like melodies of “I Hear You Cry” (originally a bonus cut on the European release of the record) or the buzzing melancholy of “Big Star” b-side “Sleepyhead”. These songs continue the spirit of the record nicely, though some alternate takes don’t add much to a story that the album itself tells pretty completely.
Thankfully, the Jayhawks didn’t stick to the shadows of Sound of Lies longer than they needed to. It rejuvenated the band’s spirit and creativity, and made the group push even further outside of its comfort zone on Smile. This 2000 album is a far poppier affair than its predecessor, but don’t mistake poppiness for lightness. You can feel the band free of the trouble from a few years before, so that the electronic edges of “Broken Harpoon” or the sunburst power-pop chorus of “What Led Me to This Town” or the electro-rock propulsion of “Life Floats By” feel less like ways to reinvent the band’s sound and more like a band exuding confidence and with nothing to lose. That freedom of expression goes a long way in the charm of the record. There’s also a contentment on this record, a settling of past debts, that adds to its inviting feel. It helps that the album contains standouts like “Better Days”, in which Louris addresses regret or the sweet nostalgia of “What Led Me to This Town”. Those songs are built sturdily on Louris’s sense of songcraft, which hold up the faint pop shifts well. Of course, not all experiments can work, and the strings of “Smile” can bog it down, while some of the more programmed percussion cuts away at the heft of the more propulsive stuff here. But Smile, despite being an uneven follow-up to Sound of Lies, sounds even more now like a brave departure, the kind of stretching of the band’s sound that bands like Wilco would be lauded for. The bonus tracks here don’t cohere with the album all that well, although the demos of “Greta Garbo” and “Five Cornered Blues” are excellent, stripped-down counterparts to the brightness of Smile.
Once the band got to Rainy Day Music in 2003, they reversed all this expansive sound play. The band had pared down to just Louris, Perlman, O’Reagan, and new guitarist Stephen McCarthy, and the resulting record was a more sparse affair. The line on its release was that it hearkened back to the band’s earlier days, but that’s not quite it. Instead, it honed in on the pop structures that served as the nucleus for the stuff on Smile and even Sound of Lies. The best of the record, much livelier than its title implies, is as pure and effective as pop music gets. The beautiful back-and-forth between electric guitar and pedal steel on “Tailspin”. The sweet tumble down harmonies of “Save It for a Rainy Day”. The organ fills and shuffling churn of “Eyes of Sarah Jane”. Each song has its own charms, but they all contain the same tight center. Louris and company don’t worry so much at stretching the limits here so much as nailing everything that is here with precision. The tightness and perfection of these early songs makes some of the later tunes, especially the stretched-thin melodies of “Madman” and the overdone strings of “You Look So Young”, seem out of place and overdone. Luckily, the record also leads to the beautiful quiet of “Tampa to Tulsa”, one of the most hushed but effective moments on any of these three records.
The bonus cuts with Rainy Day Music are all previously unreleased and interesting, but things like the “inbred version” of “Tailspin” are more curiosities than worthwhile add-ons. Taken together, though, these three albums dispel some of the main stories swirling around the Jayhawks. Sound of Lies disproves the notion that the best Jayhawks music came about when Olsen was around, as the best of it stands up to its two predecessors. Smile shows us that the alt-country moniker, which is ill-fitting on pretty much everyone, was especially restrictive to Louris and company. And Rainy Day Music showed that, at heart, the Jayhawks were a group fine tunesmiths, players that could beef up songs and experiment or let them stand bare and sound just as sweet. There may be holes here and there in these records, but the reissue campaign does make us reconsider the band’s legacy and, more importantly, it tells the story of how a band turned uncertainty into a new identity. Mark Olsen would return for their next album, 2010’s Mockingbird Time, but that doesn’t mean this was some alternate or temporary version of the band. In the late ‘90s and onward, regardless of personnel, the Jayhawks stretched their limits and made some great music as a result.