Since 1985 The Jayhawks have been recording and performing music that’s evolved from a strong roots/country rock basis into an eclectic mix that features influences as diverse as the richly melodic work of The Byrds and Neil Young, to the art-punk energy of Television. The band’s last studio album was Mockingbird Time in 2011, and at the end of April they released a keenly anticipated new album – Paging Mr Proust.
In the mid 1980’s, Mark Olson, Gary Louris and Mark Perlman, from Minneapolis, formed the Jayhawks; a genre defining four piece band whose music referenced harmonic influences of The Byrds and The Everly Brothers but also bore the pace and energy of early alt-country explorations. Olson’s song writing dominated the early, growing years of the band, with Louris contributing more significantly from the late 1980’s onward. In 1992 the band’s first major signing was followed by the release of Hollywood Town Hall. The mix of Louris’s electric guitar work alongside Olson’s folk/roots influences earned the single Waiting for the Sun increased exposure, and the band began to enjoy a wider fan base. Olson left in 1995 to pursue other projects, and Louris continued to write songs for the constantly evolving band; who enjoyed critical, if not noticeably commercial success.
From 2004 to 2009 there was what’s generally regarded as a hiatus, while the band members concentrated on different projects, often collaborating with each other. Then a series of re-issues lead to the original trio reforming to tour, with a band that included long-term drummer Tim O’Reagan and keyboard player Karen Grolberg. In 2011 they released a new studio album, Mockingbird Time. After touring the album in 2012 Olson left the band leaving Louris as the primary song writer.
The album opens in classic Jayhawks mode, with the shimmering delight of Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces. The intoxicating blend of acoustic and electric guitars, the instant appeal of Gary Louris’ fragile tenor alongside dreamy harmonies, could mark this as one of the band’s strongest openings; and the album is replete with a host of similar charmers. Leaving the Monsters Behind is upbeat and equally positive, but with a more poppy cadence and layers of harmony from Grolberg and guest Mike Mills (REM) to glide you along. On the REM link, co-producing the album with Louris, and Tucker Martine, whose production credits include The Decemberists and Beth Orton, is REM’s Peter Buck; substantial evidence that The Jayhawks are not simply content to punch out a familiar, formulaic offering every few years, like some elixir of life. In collaborating with Beck and Martine, Louris has ensured that the breadth of the enterprising song writing is reflected in a variety of settings, as dependable as the performances themselves. The variety is exemplified in tracks like Dust Of Long Dead Stars, where energetic shades of 70’s punk in the guitar are contrasted with a classic country rock chorus.
Bright and breezy on the surface, Lovers Of The Sun echoes the same era but with unmistakable Velvet Underground references, especially with Karen Grolberg’s airy backing vocals. In the lyrics there’s a dusky edge to the sunlight; a contrast Louris offers listeners throughout the album; Pretty Roses In Your Hair, for instance, with its slightly darker tones and Buck’s feedback-laden guitar. While Lost in Summer offers a more psychedelic approach and a gorgeously, wild distorted guitar; the darker elements are there in the lyrics…
Freedom to believe in something
that you cannot understand
Freedom to cradle a pistol
in the palm of your hand
The crisply melodic rise and fall of Isabel’s Daughter restores a positive outlook and a lively pace, while gritty guitar and soft harmonies contrast in Devil Is In Her Eyes, with an added edge from a wail of harmonica. The title of Comeback Kids could almost be autobiographical, as Louris channels Wilco’s roots/electronic approach, taking the band in another new direction that’s slightly gritty, and very catchy
If it’s grit you enjoy, though, Ace presents something altogether more adventurous. Completely at odds with the album’s melodic offerings, Ace takes a different approach in a deep, rumbling roadhouse jam of a track, veering off into unstructured experimental guitar, and keyboards that meander manically in and out of two-chord pop. It’s rewarding nonetheless, partly for its sense of adventure and partly because it does challenge; it discourages any complacency in the more accessible tracks.
Rocking out in a more familiar mode, Lies in Black & White takes a bitter swipe at mass media…
You’re labouring in the vacuum
I never felt at ease with you in the room
You’re still squeezing the very last drop of juice
from the rotting fruit
While all you spew are lies, lies in black and white.
Taking on a more conventional route to the finish by way of a love song, I’ll Be Your Key closes the album on a plaintive, melancholy note. The song offers an uncluttered opening of vocal and acoustic guitar, augmented by Perlman’s assured bass. Fresh and open throughout, light keyboards and electric guitar add to the sound and bring the album to a dreamy close.
There’s always been more to The Jayhawks than country rock. In Paging Mr Proust, this is stated far more emphatically than ever. Following Olson’s departure in the late 1980’s Louris guided the band through the commercialism of the 90’s with a steady supply of worthy material that, while not gaining much in the way of chart success, set them on the road to the established reputation they enjoy now.
In their latest return to form, The Jayhawks perform songs that can enliven and inspire, but are still complex, and often full of conflicts; especially where the darker tone of the subject fights against the positive spirit of the beat or the harmonious chorus. At these times the listener has the freedom to take the song at face value and allow the melody to wash over them. They can also embrace the dusk, knowing the melody’s there to lift them up again.
There’s no shortage of light in Paging Mr Proust, it’s uplifting and adventurous; an album that provides all the Jayhawks elements that keep the fans hoping for another album, yet still managing to strike forth into new territory. It isn’t simply good to see them back – it’s better than ever to see them back.
Paging Mr Poust is Out Now via on Thirty Tigers/Sham
The Jayhawks UK Tour Dates
The Jayhawks are touring the UK in September 2016 with Ethan Johns*.
SEP 1 THU – Arts School, Glasgow*
SEP 2 FRI – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, SOLD OUT*
SEP 3 SAT – The Lantern @ Colston Hall, Bristol*
SEP 4 SUN – Moseley Folk Festival, Moseley
SEP 6 TUE – Islington Assembly Hall, London*
SEP 7 WED – Islington Assembly Hall, London*
For all tour dates and ticket links visit: www.jayhawksofficial.com