The Jayhawks – Paging Mr. Proust

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Being a Jayhawks fan can feel a little bit like being stuck in the movie Groudhog Day. They’ve had more break-ups and make-ups than anything this side of a highschool relationship. I’m really glad they do.

In a lot of ways the Jayhawks were the first alt.country band I got into. As a fan of Soul Asylum I was exposed to the Jayhawks through Soul Asylum interviews and liner notes. It was during a time that I was really exploring music and I would obsessively read liner notes from albums I liked and look up the bands and musicians I found. The first song I heard of theirs was a cover of the Victoria Williams song “Lights”, which just happens to still contain my all time favorite guitar solo.  After that I picked up Hollywood Town Hall which is an amazing record. In my opinion it is an album that does Tom Petty better than Tom Petty. I also really enjoyed the following album “Tomorrow the Green Grass” which contained the closest thing they’ve had to a hit, “Blue”.  Then disaster struck when founding member, guitarist, and vocalist Mark Olson left the band. This seemed like an impossible situation for the band as one of their key features  was the harmony singing between Olson and the other songwriter,guitarist, singer Gary Louris. They did indeed soldier on however (adding Drummer,singer,songwriter, Tim O”Reagan before Olson left) and released their best and most interesting album “Sound of Lies”. Members came and went for another two albums until the band seemingly drifted off for good. Following a box set release Olson and longtime keyboardist,singer, Karen Grotberg rejoined the trio of  Louris, O’Reagan and founding member (and fantastic bass player) Mark Perlman and they rose from the ashes again. Unfortunately the magic was gone and the album that came from the reunion, “Mockingbird Time” , is the one I listen to least. The band once again split as Olson left for good this time. I figured that had to be it.

And then something happened.

Much like the first time they lost Olson the Jayhawks have returned again with a record that is an absolute artistic triumph. With the addition of Kraig Johnson the “Sound of Lies” lineup of the band was back in the studio under the eye of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. The results are pretty stunning as far as I’m concerned and the new album “Paging Mr. Proust” is one of their best.

The album leads off with “a sigh”, the opening line of a song that almost perfectly encapsulates one aspect of the Jayhawks, the gorgeous “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces”. The song is poppy as hell in all the right ways. But like much of the Jayhawks best work it also has a serious case of melancholy. The entire record has that dark heart beating right under the surface. It’s the thing that makes Louris such a unique songwriter. He creates the best bitter pop, which is why the Jayhawks sound just as fresh to me in 2016 as they did in 1993. It’s the reason the songs sound lived in and comfortable the first time you hear them. Moments like the distant call and response in the otherwise sugary “Lovers of the Sun” or the weariness behind the beautiful hook of “I don’t want to fight” in “Leaving the Monsters Behind” display an unreal gift for blending darkness and light. In the past I thought it was a yearning that was coming out in the songs. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older but lately I think it isn’t yearning but resignation. Accepting where you are in the world and not wanting to fight against that any longer but not necessarily being happy about all that. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

The band sounds confident and comfortable. Equally embracing the things that people love from all eras of the band and exploring textures they haven’t touched on often. “Comeback Kids” is an example of the latter taking dominance with a song that sounds more like something I’d expect a Finn Brother to write rather than Louris. It’s great to have the band bounce back yet again and still finding new paths for the songs to take. Art ’16

It’s getting tougher to find space to enjoy art without any expectations. I don’t know about you but I’m getting more and more anxious everyday. Things aren’t going quite right. It seems like we are all waiting for a moment, a moment when things are going to change one way or the other. Tensions are rising. But we still have to get up. We still have to go to work. And check in with our folks or our kids or our lovers or our friends. We still have to try to make it a little better. This album feels like the soundtrack to all of that. And fortunately for us the album also provides moments of beauty that reflect that part of our times as well as the downer parts do. I didn’t expect this from them but I am sure am glad to be surprised.

The Jayhawks are doing a western swing of dates starting July 18th with the exceptionally exquisite Fernando opening. That’s a nice bill friends, see it if you can.

Richmond Fontaine – “You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To”

Sometimes I’m just late to the party. When I was in high school I figured out that I was in love with a girl about two days before I found out I was going to be moving out of town. I just never let myself notice her until it was too late. That brings me to Richmond Fontaine.

I first heard the name because of a poster that my musical partner of the past few years had up in his house. He is a big fan of the band and that alone should have been enough to compel me to seek them out but for some reason I didn’t.

I have had the pleasure of seeing Richmond Fontaine guitarist Dan Eccles play, supporting some amazing artists such as Fernando and Michael Dean Damron. Eccles is an incredibly talented guitarist. He plays with a perfect blend of emotive and tasteful style, flashy enough to impress your average concert attendee but with a depth that has left every musician I know in awe. And yet I still didn’t check out the band he was best known for. I was never in a rush because I figured I had all the time in the world. Wrong again.

You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To” is last call for Richmond Fontaine. It’s the end of the party and dammit I just got here. After twenty years and more than ten albums they’ve reached the end of their road. This album is the first one of theirs that I have heard, and it’s left me wanting more. I think they did that on purpose.

The album sets an immediate tone with the gentle instrumental “Leaving Bev’s Miners Club at Dawn.” What follows is an exploration of the feeling of being late to the party but wanting it to continue; wishing you had tried harder, pushed more, made it there on time but also accepting that you didn’t. In resignation, not anger. This has happened before, maybe it happens almost every night. The yearning for a different outcome remains, though.

Early on the album on, Willy Vlautin sings, “Let’s hit one more place / before we go home / let’s go in when it’s dark / come out with the sun”. He knows the night is a failure as always, but it never hurts to try. Some writers use geography to describe the emotions they want to convey with their songs, Vlautin uses characters to explore that landscape instead. He drags you straight into that world instead of leaving you to observe it from behind the glass.

Musically this album feels like a summer record to me, a perfect mate to the twilight of the season, with desolate but consenting lyrics and music that is mournful without wallowing. On this record Richmond Fontaine sounds like the band I wish Wilco had become, maybe what they should have become. It’d be easy to label it alt.country, but it’s more clearly just excellent songcraft.

Along with the tremendous guitar work from Eccles there are some beautifully subtle bass parts from Freddy Trujillo, just the right amount of aching pedal steel from Paul Brainard, propelling but not overpowering drums from Sean Oldham (especially on “A Night in the City”) and exquisite keyboard flourishes from guest Jenny Conlee. All of this builds a perfect bed for Vlautin’s yearning but assured vocals. As is always my test, I need to believe a singer in order to believe a song, and I’m absolutely buying what Willy Vlautin is selling.

I hope you weren’t late to the Richmond Fontaine party like I was. But, if you are at least we get the sheer joy of starting at the end of the story and working our way back to see where this all started.

Check out their latest and final album, “You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To”, out now on Fluff and Gravy Records. And if the band comes through your town any time soon, make sure you catch them. Let’s hit one more show before the party is over.