CD Review: The Jayhawks

Jayhawks 2014 tour promo photo 3

The Jayhawks
Sound of Lies
Smile
Rainy Day Music

American Recordings/UMe
by David Chiu

Following their first three studio albums, the alt-rock group Jayhawks released what was seen as their breakthrough record, 1994’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, thanks to the gorgeous single “Blue.” But after that release, co-singer/guitarist/songwriter Mark Olson departed the band, a serious blow that could have broken or slowed down the Jayhawks’ momentum. But fortunately the band carried on under the stewardship of Gary Louris, and for the next nine years, the Jayhawks crafted three underrated albums that have just been recently reissued with bonus tracks.

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Whether it had to do with Olson’s departure or not, 1997’s Sound of Lies was a rather melancholy and dark record compared to Green Grass – and that mood could be traced in a couple of the songs, whether it is in the form of the reflective ballad Trouble or the turbulent yet brilliant epic “Dying on the Vine.” Great tracks like “The Man Who Loved Life” and “Think About It” should have been hits, and the rest of the record is peppered with gems in the rollicking “Big Star” and the pretty “It’s Up To You.” If anything, Sound of Lies proved there was still life in this band. Among the bonus tracks include a rough mix of the album’s title song.

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In hindsight, the band’s hiring of Kiss and Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin to produce 2000’s Smile was a very surprising and ballsy move, and the result was probably the Jayhawks’ most commercial and radio-friendly sound in their catalog. Traditional alt-rock fans may have been taken aback by the band’s direction during that period, yet Smile was probably a lot better than some of the other records that came out that year. In contrast to the bleak Sound of Lies, Smile opens up with two sunny tracks: the majestic title song and the cheery “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” There’s even some elements of electronica thrown in the mix courtesy of “In My Wildest Dreams” — but otherwise, there’s still some of the beautiful roots rock that’s been the band’s calling card in “Better Days” and “A Break in the Clouds.” A couple of demos and outtakes, including “Greta Garbo” and “Who Made You King,” grace the Smile reissue.

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Perhaps as a reaction to the commercial sheen of Smile, the Jayhawks regrouped as a trio and released their finest album in 2003’s Rainy Day Music before going on an extended hiatus. Under the helm of producer Ethan Johns, Rainy Day Music sounded more low-keyed, organic and straightforward, harkening back to the earlier days: among its highlights include the catchy rocker “Tailspin,” the pretty “Save It for a Rainy Day,” and the beautiful “Angelyne” (which showcased some gorgeous vocal harmonies), and the soulful “Don’t Let The World Get in Your Way.” And like the other two previous reissues, this edition of Rainy Day Music contains several demos, including an ‘inbred version’ of Tailspin and a live performance of “In the Canyon” recorded in the group’s home state in 2001.

Fortunately, the Jaywhawks story didn’t end with that record — eight years later, the group, with Mark Olson back into the fold, reunited for Mockingbird Time. Still, these three records demonstrate that the group’s perseverance despite losing a key member and still put out some great music the rest of the way.

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