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The Jayhawks

02-02-2015 | By Andy Goldenberg | Issue 77


Springing out of Minneapolis in the early '90's, the Jayhawks' music offered a healthy musical antidote to the rainy weather nihilism emanating out of the Pacific Northwest. With their gorgeous country harmonies, jangly Byrdsian–like guitar, combined with their knack for capturing pop hooks, the Jayhawks were conveniently pigeonholed by DJ's & music critics into the Alternative-Country corner along with the Old 97's, Whiskeytown, Lucinda & Victoria William & Uncle Tupelo (whose eventual break-up spawned both Son Volt & Wilco.) However, as these vinyl reissues so brilliantly reveal, part of the Jayhawks longevity was & is their ability to forge their own sonic & lyrical journey, disregarding whatever trends happened to be occurring around them at any given time.

Hollywood Town Hall's lead off track & first single, "Waiting For the Sun," kicks off with impeccably recorded, close-miked barrelhouse piano as the band, guitarists Gary Louris, Marc Olson, Marc Perlman on bass & Ken Callahan on drums kick the song into high gear. Produced by George Drakoulias, this was the first Jayhawks track I ever heard, & my ears instantly perked up when I heard Louris's Gibson SG played through a fuzz pedal along with Olson & Louris's glorious 2-part harmonies. I was hooked. "Crowded in the Wings" takes the opening track's country-flavored pop & builds upon it utilizing pedal steel guitar and wah-wah-pedal from Louris. Other stand-out tracks include "Clouds" featuring dual electric guitars intertwining & "Two Angels' featuring Springsteen-like harmonica & dueling vocals from Olson & Louris as well as "Take Me with You When You Go," the only other radio-friendly track on the album.


Tomorrow the Green Grass, also produced by George Drakoulias, the follow-up to Hollywood, featured perhaps the band's biggest "hit" so to speak (peaking at #33 in Canada!) with the gorgeous, "Blue." A country ballad featuring pristine Everly Brothers-type dual vocals & harmonies from Louris & Olson, I'm shocked that no one in today's country music market has sought to cover this tune, as it is especially perfect for a male/female dual lead attempt! The piano accompaniment from newest band member Karen Grotberg is stellar & the remastering job by Vic Anesini really allows the track to breathe. "I'd Run Away" is another radio-friendly number featuring violin & viola overdubs from Lili Haydn. The vinyl pressing showcases both instruments in shimmering detail while not allowing them to be overrun by the rest of the track, which is often the case when Rock meets Classical! Other standout tracks include, "Over My Shoulder," a mid-tempo country rock (pardon me, Alt. Country) tear-jerker featuring sympathetic violin from Tammy Rodgers as well as "Ten Little Kids," which allows the band to rock out in fellow Minnesotan Replacements-like fashion.


1997's Sound of Lies marked a darker period for the band as Marc Olson unexpectedly departed & his guitar spot was filled by fellow Jayhawk/Wilco side-project Golden Smog member Kraig Johnson. This period of doubt was reflected in Louris's lyrics as relationships appear to dissolve as a result misunderstandings, personal doubts (hence the album title?) & substance abuse, which rears its ugly head on several of the tracks. The music is darker on this album as well utilizing mournful chamberlins, mellotrons & violins. Opener "The Man Who Loved Life," features dire minor-key piano and violin & viola from Jessy Greene. "Trouble" is a slow affecting ballad & "It's Up To You" is a perfect mid-tempo country-rock ditty featuring cascading piano accompaniment & vocal harmonies by Grotberg. The sound quality of Sound of Lies, which was produced by Brian Paulson & the Jayhawks, is a bit murkier than the other albums, perhaps intentionally so as to match the darker lyrical content. On the crescendos of the rockier songs the instruments tend to bleed into one another but it manages to work somehow.

Hoping to revive the band's sagging morale & record sales, Columbia Records contacted noted record producer Bob Ezrin (Kiss, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, etc.) to see if he could inject some life into them. Released in 2000, Smile saw the band utilizing drum loops & synthesizers (one would imagine with some trepidation), but trusting Ezrin's track record. Ironically one track to gain commercial muscle was the infectiously pop "I'm Gonna Make You love Me," which contained no drum loops or samples. The track was soon featured on the popular TV show Dawson's Creek soundtrack, as well as a Ralph Lauren commercial & the film, All Over The Guy. Still there were enough traditional Alt. Country tracks like "What Led Me To this Town" which features Byrds-like harmonies, & "Broken Harpoon," showcasing a watery keyboard sound that would not sound out of place on the Beach Boys Surf's UpLP. At the time of the album's release, opinion was greatly divided if this experimental track was the right step forward for the band. I recall thinking at the time that it was interesting sonic experiment (similar to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) which for the most part succeeded.


Rainy Day Music (released 2003) perfectly encapsulates everything that is special & great about the band, combining the darkness of Sound of Lies, the pop touches of Smile, & the Alt. Country jangle ofHollywood & Green Grass. As if sensing their fan-base's doubts, 2003's masterful Rainy Day Musicsaw another new producer step in, Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams), who encouraged the band to just be themselves & let the songs flow naturally. At Johns' instigation, the band recorded the vocals & music live in the studio, with only minimal overdubbing, & the vibe on the record reflects this tone. The mix of the album reveals a very "live in the room" sound. There are at least four tracks that should have been hit pop or country/pop singles, "Stumbling Through The Dark," "Save It For A Rain Day," "Tailspin," & "Angelyne," all featuring the gorgeous harmonies & jangly guitar sound that hardcore 'Hawks fans have come to expect. As great as those pop tunes are, darker songs like "Don't Let the World Get In Your Way," featuring lead & harmony vocals from drummer Tim O' Reagan, haunting chamberlin from Johns, & Louis's creepy Lolita-ode "You look So Young," are spellbindingly good tracks. Lastly, O' Reagan's road-weary travelogue, "Tampa To Tulsa," is crying out for mainstream Country radio exposure!

All the reissued albums come with some bonus material: demos, outtakes, alternate takes, but the real reason to get these reissues is to hear one of the best & most underrated American bands of the last 30 years in absolutely stellar sound quality. Audiophiles will rejoice in the separation of instruments. Cymbal strikes decay naturally, without being washed-out with distortion and bass, & string instruments are deep and vivid without being lost in the mix. The exception is Sound of Lies, which was intentionally left murky. If this is the quality of vinyl product we can expect from Universal in 2015, vinyl lovers will be in for a real treat!

Reviewing Equipment:

Dunlavy SC-3 speakers

Thorens TD-160 turntable

Ortofon Kontrapunkt A cartridge

Aragon palladium dual-monoblock solid-state amplifier

Audio Research SP- 8 tube preamp

Hollywood Town Hall, 1992 (B0020914-01), Tomorrow the Green Grass, 1995 (B0020916-01),Sound of Lies, 1997 (B0021158-01), Smile, 2000 (B0021157-01), Rainy Day Music, 2003 (B0021156-01). Universal Music/American Recordings-Reissued vinyl. Remastered by Vic Anesini at Battery Recording Studios. Lacquers cut by Kevin Gray. 180-gram Vinyl pressed by Quality Record Pressings (QPR)