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.