By Eleni P. Austin
The Jayhawks have been a going concern since 1985. The band formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the time, the Twin Cities were in the midst of a musical renaissance. The scene was home to disparate artists like Prince, The Suburbs, Suicide Commandos, Husker Du, The Time, The Replacements and Soul Asylum.
The nucleus of the band, Gary Louris (vocals and electric guitar), Mark Olson (vocals and acoustic guitar) and Marc Perlman (bass), had each shuffled through a series of Rockabilly and Punk groups. The trio were drawn together through a shared love for the music of The Louvin Brothers, Gram Parsons, Tim Hardin and “Nashville Skyline” era Bob Dylan. Although they cycled through a series of drummers with almost “Spinal Tap” alacrity, they quickly began making a name for themselves on a local level.
Earlier in the decade bands like Rank & File, Jason and The Scorchers and the Long Ryders merged the sounds of Country and Punk into an amalgam they christened “Cow-Punk.” The Jayhawks distilled and broadened that sound, adding touches of Bluegrass, Roots-Rock, Honky Tonk and Folk, creating a musical alchemy that became known as alt.country or Americana.
Their self-titled debut, was released via the tiny indie label, Bunkhouse in early 1986. It created enough buzz to get them signed to Twin/Tone. The respected indie label was known for breaking local bands like The Replacements and Soul Asylum. Their sophomore effort, Blue Earth, arrived after three tumultuous years, in that time Gary was involved in a serious car accident and briefly left the band. The album received a rave review from curmudgeonly Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, who compared them favorably with the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Rather serendipitously, producer George Drakoulias called in to the Twin/Tone office, heard Blue Earth playing in the background and asked about the band. George began his career as an A&R man for Rick Rubin’s Def Jam label and was responsible for signing the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. When Rubin relocated from New York to L.A. to start his American label, George followed suit. Most recently he had discovered, nurtured and signed the Black Crowes. The Atlanta band’s 1990 debut achieved immediate critical and commercial success.
He quickly added The Jayhawks to American’s roster.
He got the band back into the studio and produced their third long-player, Hollywood Town Hall. The record signaled a bit of a commercial breakthrough. Grunge and Hip-Hop had a stranglehold on the airwaves, but somehow the Jayhawks managed to slip through. Their sound, which echoed the rustic Country comfort of predecessors like the Byrds, The Band, and Buffalo Springfield, provided the perfect antidote to Grunge’s flannel-cloaked angst. Critical acclaim was nearly unanimous, even MTV put their videos into heavy rotation. By the time they returned in 1995 with their fourth album, Tomorrow The Green Grass, they were poised for greatness.
All the promise of Hollywood… was fulfilled by …Green Grass. Songs like “I’ll Run Away” and “Blue” felt deeper and more resonant. “Miss Williams’ Guitar” was a raucous ode to Mark Olson’s bride, sui generis singer-songwriter, Victoria Williams. By the time they hit the road, they finally found their permanent drummer, Tim O’Reagan and added Karen Grotberg on keys.
Although they toured relentlessly behind the album, commercial success eluded them. At this point, Mark opted to quit the band, he had been at it for a decade and it was time for a change. A few years before, Vic had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and the couple has recently put down roots in Joshua Tree. He went on to make music with Vic as The Original Harmony Creek Dippers, as well as a series of well-received solo albums.
Following Mark’s departure, Gary became the de facto leader of the Jayhawks. In 1997 they released their Psychedelic-tinged Sound Of Lies. The Pop-flavored Smile arrived at the turn of the 20th century, three years later the rootsy and largely acoustic Rainy Day Music appeared. In 2005, the band took an extended hiatus, Tim O’Reagan recorded a solo album a year later and Gary’s followed suit with his solo debut, Vagabonds. Mark and Gary had remained friends and in 2009 the pair released a duo album, Ready For The Flood.
By the end of that same year, Mark, Gary and the rest of the band reunited for a couple of shows, in Barcelona as well as their hometown. American released a career retrospective, Music From The North Country and suddenly, Mark was fully back and touring with the band. The terms of his return hinged on one contingency, if he left the band, the Jayhawks could never tour or record without him. The reunion felt more complete with the release Mockingbird Time in 2011. A tour followed, including a Stagecoach set in early 2012. Then the shit hit the fan.
Disagreements about finances and song credits between the pair were only exacerbated by Gary’s addiction to pain medication (he has since sought treatment), and the pair nearly came to blows. Mark vowed to never perform with Gary or the band again. He reignited his solo career, pairing with his second wife Ingunn Ringvold for a series of well-received albums.
Gary never publicly addressed the split, but he reconvened the Jayhawks and returned to the road, abrogating the agreement they had struck before reuniting. With R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and producer/musician Tucker Martine handling production chores, the band returned to the studio to record Paging Mr. Proust. Released in 2016, the album successfully tackled a plethora of musical genres, everything from stripped-down Country, to Psychedelia, Power Pop and even Prog-Rock.
The last couple of years found the Jayhawks collaborating with Kinks front-man Ray Davies, providing instrumentation for his latest solo albums, Americana and Our Country-Americana Act II. They performed the same service for Wesley Stace on his 2017 release, Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding.
The band’s 10th album, Backroads And Abandoned Motels arrived in 2018. It featured several songs Gary Louris had written that were recorded by artists like The Dixie Chicks (recently rebranded as The Chicks, in this post-George Floyd era), Jakob Dylan, Ari Heist and Carrie Rodriguez. Despite the mixed-bag approach, it was a surprisingly cohesive effort.
Now the band is back with their new album, XOXO, a particularly effusive and affectionate title for a pack of reticent north-westerners. But that’s just one of themyriad surprises offered here. The record opens in classic fashion with the outlaw’s lament of “This Forgotten Town,” one of two tracks co-written by the entire band.
Strummy acoustic guitars connect with burnished electric riffs, bolstered by sturdy bass lines, willowy piano runs and a rock-solid beat. Gary’s slow-as-molasses tenor starts things off, but everyone takes a verse. Although the lyrics paint a dusty portrait of the old west, lines like “When we were young, we were judged by the choices that we made/And all the time we wasted and all the love, the love that I betrayed,” hint at the band’s fractious history. Sandblasted guitars and keening pedal steel partner on the break.
Since Mark Olson’s departure, Gary Louris has shouldered 90% of the songwriting and lead vocal duties for the band. Sure, occasionally there’s been a co-writing credit, or one of the other Jayhawks contributed a solo composition, but it’s been less a democracy and closer to a benign dictatorship. That arrangement has been upended on XOXO. For the first time, Marc, Tim and Karen each take a turn in the spotlight.
Tim is up first with three songs. If Big Star and The Plimsouls ever managed to collaborate, it might have sounded like “Dogtown Days,” a crisp fusion of Punk and Power Pop. The surprisingly muscular arrangement is propelled by crackling electric guitars, boomerang bass lines and a pounding back-beat. The lyrics offer a brash mea culpa that is equal parts tender and truculent; “When it began, the thing felt right, I was only kidding if I destroyed your life/I must confess I was a fool, I needed you.” sinewy guitars ricochet on the break, careening into the final verse and chorus before collapsing in a heap.
Braided acoustic guitars and tensile bass are tethered to a galloping beat on “Society Pages.” Urgent and opaque, the song could sandwich nicely between Buffalo Springfield and the Monkees on any AM Pop Radio playlist. Cryptic lyrics seem to take a swipe at social hypocrisy and veiled homophobia, singling out one obsequious dandy with practiced disdain; “He’s a clown in cashmere, he’s a crowd pleaser, you can never trust a man who can’t finish his beer.” A spiky electric solo on the break underscores the narrator’s contempt.
He switches gears on “Looking Up Your Number.” A high lonesome lullaby that is pared down to sun-dappled acoustic guitar and Tim’s rueful vocals. The lyrics are shot-through with romantic regret; “Living on the wrong side of life, running out of fun, thinking all the while/You’re out there on the side, waiting for my call, but you were moving down the line.” Shards of electric guitar spark and pinwheel on the break before Tim’s final, falsetto invocation; “I see you there in the dark in the light, I keep you here in my heart in my mind/I see you there in the dark in the light, I want you here in my arms in my life.”
Karen Grotberg has been a part of the Jayhawks, playing keys and contributing harmony vocals for a quarter of a century, but this is the first time she is front and center, singing lead vocals on her compositions, “Ruby” and “Across My Field.”
The former opens with a plaintive piano intro that recalls the ornate tones of Carole King and the late, great Maggie Roche, of the Roches. She wraps her warm contralto around the first verse solo, before the band joins in adding rich harmonies, quiescent percussion, dissonant guitars and weeping pedal steel. The lyrics offer a stark pentimento, sketching out the margins of a solitary woman waiting for her true love to return; “The ghost of your hero, your love thought lost in the war, whistling always by your kitchen door.”
The latter is a pensive piano ballad that picks up, mid-conversation; “You say that you moved around a lot, and these changes do not change you/Treading the dark water, crossing your bridges as they beckon.” Piquant guitar notes and sawing violin lattice over shadowy pedal steel, as long-held hopes and dreams circle the drain; “Can you live what you can’t believe, the empty pages and these fading dreams will push you to the edge/I watch you fall and I feel for you, do you feel for me?” Piano and guitars lock into a bittersweet pas de deux as the song fades into the sunset.
The best tracks here pair topical lyrics with effervescent melodies. “Living In A Bubble” takes a caustic critique on the 24-hour news cycle and cloaks it in a jaunty melody. The song is anchored by rippling, Honky-Tonk piano, pliant bass lines, chiming guitars, lush harmonies and a tick-tock rhythm. The opening couplet sets the tone, offering a trenchant take on our addiction to technology; “No signal on the morning train, I’m alone with my thoughts as they run through my brain/Big Brother’s got a hold of me and I never know who to believe.”
On “Homecoming” tentative acoustic arpeggios wash over descending mellotron notes, as angelic harmonies are bookended by spidery bass lines, some piano jingle-jangle, raucous power chords and a sturdy backbeat. The lyrics simultaneously brutally excoriate climate change-deniers, and elevate activists like Greta Thunberg who continue to speak truth to power; “As the slaughterhouses hum, stockholders count their profits while blocking out the sun/All the oceans brown with foam, the polar ice is melting, watch forests as they fall/There’s no one else coming to save us, why are the children always the bravest, stealing their dreams one day at a time, a future betrayal denying the science (all coming down).” A serrated guitar solo gives way to static-y white noise that seems to signal this planet is dying.
Meanwhile, “Bitter Pill” is a little more up-close and personal. On this twangy two-step, we catch up with the girl that was celebrated in “Lover Of The Sun,” from the last album. A little further down the road, “Maddie” is a mere shadow of her former self; “She worked down at the topless bar, saved enough to buy a car, a rusty red forgotten Chevrolet/Too many nights with nothing to show, counting her tips while her frustration grows.” Sparkly mandolin and cascading pedal steel notes manage to add a hint of sunshine to this melancholy portrait.
Other interesting tracks include the grease and grit of “Little Victories,” and the incandescent “Illuminate.” Marc Perlman’s lone composition, “Down To The Farm” is a Dylanesque roundelay that features this provocative couplet, “I watched you today as you got up and left with the sun, your lips had their say and your hips had their sway, like a song.”
Do yourself a favor and pony up the extra dough for the vinyl version or the limited-edition CD, which feature three bonus tracks: Karen’s sharp, small-town study, “Jewel Of Trimbelle,” the bucolic grandeur of Gary’s “Then You Walked Away” and the brittle beauty of Gary and Marc’s “Hypocrite’s Lament.”
The Jayhawks produced this album on their own. They recruited a few pals to sit in, Eric Heywood on pedal steel, John Jackson on violin and mandolin, along with Kris Johnson on electric guitar. Stephen McCarthy, who made his bones in L.A.’s rootsy Paisley Underground band, the Long Ryders, also added some guitar and pedal steel.
So, 35 trips around the sun for The Jayhawks. No lavish box sets or keys to the Twin Cities to commemorate this achievement, instead, we are treated to “XOXO.” The record represents a new, more inclusive era for the band. Their classic sound has been refreshed and recalibrated, and the result is pretty wonderful. There’s closeness and camaraderie that shines through here, it colors every song. The Jayhawks have turned a corner, and it feels pretty good.