Sunday, April 24, 2016

Album Review: The Jayhawks - Paging Mr. Proust

Whether they like it or not, it will always be 1992 for The Jayhawks. No matter how much time has passed, or how much water has flowed under the bridge, they will always be remembered for the unique combination of Gary Louris and Mark Olson, and how they helped to write the playbook for alt-country, or Americana, or whatever you want to call the music they were making. The fact that the band kept going when Olson left has become a footnote, especially in light of his return for the band's last album, "Mockingbird Time". But Olson is gone once again, and we are faced with a different reality: The Jayhawks are a far different, and in many ways more interesting band when he's not around.

Interesting is the first word that comes to mind when listening to this new album, because Gary Louris and the rest of the band have made an album that is hard to pin down, hard to define, and also a bit hard to embrace. At their best, whether they were being experimental or not, the band's best songs were rooted in strong harmony and sweet melody. That is not always the case here.

The first single, "Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces" opens the album exactly how you would expect it to, feeling like nothing has changed since "Rainy Day Music". Louris' vocals have that familiar tinge of melancholy, the guitars shimmer as they pluck out arpeggios, and the chorus has that laid-back 60 AM radio feeling that they do so well. It's a perfect track to remind us of where this iteration of the band left off, and why "Rainy Day Music" is one of those albums that should have garnered much more attention.

Things take a detour right after that. "Lost The Summer" has heavy guitars that are swamped under so much echo they sound wretched, and the song then wanders through spacey verses, before hitting on a weak chorus. I think it was supposed to be a song that sets an atmosphere, but none of that comes through, and instead, it stunts the album before it can build up any momentum. That actually is a common theme here. The Jayhawks are too good a band to not write some great songs, but here those songs are surrounded by material that tries new things, and all of them fall flat.

The songs that play to the strengths of The Jayhawks are lovely additions to the band's canon. "Lovers Of The Sun" is tender beauty, "Isabel's Daughter" is stacked with gorgeous harmony vocals, while "The Devil Is In Her Eyes" could be a lost Louris/Olson collaboration, it's that good.

But we also get songs that belie the band's tendencies for songcraft. A song like "Ace" is five and a half minutes of a single groove being beaten into the ground, which might be excusable, if it was a good groove, or if there was a melody over the top of it. Neither is the case, and it sits in the middle of the record like a giant, rusted anchor.

I'm not one of those people who thinks The Jayhawks live and die based on Olson's presence. They made bad records with him, and frankly, I've always seen them as being driven by Louris anyway. "Rainy Day Music" is a favorite of mine, so I have no dog in the fight. But I get the impression on this album that, after the reported acrimony of the last album cycle, they wanted to be different and do new things. That's all well and good, except they didn't do things they are good at. The songs that sound like The Jayhawks are good, and the experimental material, to be charitable, is there too.

The Jayhawks can make good records in this incarnation. This isn't one of them. Whatever the band's feelings were, "Mockingbird Time" was a better record. I wasn't disappointed by the one.

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