Third time’s the charm?
The chorus to “All the Right Reasons,” the third cut on the newly three-piece Jayhawks’ upcoming release, contains what may be the singularly most gorgeous moments of the standard-bearing alt-country band’s lengthy career.
“I don’t know what day it is,” sings front man Gary Louris, his mercuric voice fragile as glass. “I can’t recall the seasons. I don’t remember how we got this far.”
When Louris’ high tenor cranes into the bittersweet lyrics, against the soft harmonies of guest vocalists Chris Stills and Matthew Sweet, the emotion is startling, like a quiet shiver of momentary grief. The melody, like the best of the Jayhawks’ earlier music, feels like it’s always been there — instantly classic.
Fans put off by the psychedelic bubblegum production of Smile (American/Columbia, 2000) will have something to grin about in the aptly titled and frequently perfect Rainy Day Music, due out April 1 on American/Lost Highway Records. The new album, the group’s seventh, honors The Jayhawks’ trademark popped-up Americana sound while still sounding fresh, often revelatory. Songs are stark and haunting, like rain beaded on a darkened windowpane.
The band has known its share of stormy weather. Its history boasts myth-making music-biz moments, not least of which is the departure of co-front man Mark Olson — whose vocal harmonies with Louris were the group’s hallmark — at the height of The Jayhawks’ success. Rainy Day Music is the band’s third release since reinventing itself in the wake of the fundamental 1995 personnel shift, which had many fans writing the group off prematurely.
The core group formed in 1985 in Minneapolis: Olson (bass, but later guitar), Marc Perlman (guitar, but later bass) and Norm Rogers, the first of several drummers before Tim O’Reagan cemented the spot 10 years later. Louris, a veteran Minneapolis guitar player and singer/songwriter, signed on after the band’s dismally attended first show.
A year later, The Jayhawks released an eponymous record, now often called “The Bunkhouse Album” after the vanity label that put it out.
But by 1988, the band had reached a standstill, garnering plenty of label interest but no deal (A&M Records even funded a series of demos, later passing on them).
And then Louris was in a car accident that haunts him to this day.
“I got broadsided, and the guy pushed me up a curb through a concrete bus bench and through a brick wall of a building,” he related by phone recently. “I ruptured my spleen, broke my pelvis, broke my ribs, bruised my heart and punctured my lungs. I’m lucky I’m still living.”
When Louris subsequently left the band, The Jayhawks went on hiatus — right about the time Twin Tone offered to release some of their demos. Blue Earth (1989) brought the band the first of what later became an almost unending stream of critical acclaim.
So The Jayhawks reformed, initially hiring another guitar player in Louris’ place. He still bristles slightly under the memory:
“For the occasional people who say, ‘Oh, I don’t think you should have carried on without Olson,’ I feel like saying, ‘Well, there was a short period where he was going to carry on without me!'”
Soon after, Twin Tone prez Dave Ayers played Blue Earth for old friend George Drakoulias, a producer and A&R rep with the Burbank, Calif.-based Def American Recordings (later just American) during a long-distance phone chat.
“George flew out the next day,” Louris says. “He saw us play, and he signed us right there.”
Def American put out the Drakoulias-produced Hollywood Town Hall in 1992. The album, now an alt-country benchmark, showcases brotherlike harmonies and honey-sweet, guitar-driven melodies. Tomorrow the Green Grass, another Drakoulias production, followed in 1995, broadening the band’s sonic palette with strings and yielding a minor hit with the rollicking “Blue.”
Then, at the peak of The Jayhawks’ game, Olson dropped a bomb: He needed to spend more time with his wife, singer/songwriter Victoria Williams, diagnosed a few years earlier with multiple sclerosis.
“We talked and we cried and we hugged each other, and we said, ‘That’s it,'” Louris relates. “You can’t say, ‘You shouldn’t go spend time with your wife.'”
For the next few weeks, the band ceased to be. But then the remaining members rallied around a shared future.
“When Mark Olson left, it was a defining moment,” Louris explains. “We didn’t want to pretend it was all the same and get a Mark Olson sound-alike and continue on.”
Sound of Lies, released on American in 1997, displayed a new Beatlesque verve and sonic experimentalism, with Louris’ songwriting and uncanny voice now front and center, the lyrics frequently dark and surprisingly vulnerable.
“I had moved out of my house at the time,” he explains. “I was getting a divorce. Olson had left. I was drinking a lot and not eating and living on somebody’s floor. It was a pretty dark, dark period.
“Looking back, I really don’t know how I did it,” he adds.
“Occasionally, there were people who … didn’t think it was The Jayhawks, but overwhelmingly people would come up to me and say, ‘I’m just so happy you guys continued.'”
The follow-up, Smile, hit a sour note with many fans — and for the first time, with many critics. Legendary knob-twiddler Bob Ezrin (KISS, Peter Gabriel, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd’s The Wall) took a Tinkertoys approach to production, embellishing ad nauseam. The folksiest numbers (the plaintive “Broken Harpoon,” the lush “What Led Me to This Town”) worked beautifully; the bulk of it was strained, often strident.
A year later, recent Jayhawk Kraig Johnson (guitar) departed, as did Jen Gunderman (keyboards, vocals), who’d replaced nine-year veteran Karen Grotberg. The core group is now Louris, Perlman and O’Reagan.
“We’re an all-male revue now,” Louris quips. “People say, ‘Well, what about the female singer?’ I say, ‘We’ve still got it; you’ve got me — ’cause I sound like a girl!'”