Critics' Picks

The Jayhawks

It was the perfect setup, at least on the exterior: They shared songwriting credits, shared lead vocals, and shared the stage until it was difficult to discern just who brought what to the party. With their old buddies in Uncle Tupelo, you could easily spot where A met B: Jeff Tweedy loved his bittersweet pop, Jay Farrar craved his old-time country, and somewhere in between a little rustic rock and roll, and a little Gang of Four, shook out of the sheets. But no one knew what Mark Olson and Gary Louris' split would mean for the Jayhawks, whether the good Kirk could exist for long without the bad Kirk. If nothing else, 1997's Sound of Lies--the band's first record without Olson, who split to write and record with his wife, Victoria Williams, under the name Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers--proved there was indeed strength in numbers, as the Jayhawks became a real band and not two frontmen and their sidecars. (Drummer Tim O'Reagan writes and sings, a little like Dylan on both counts.) Sound of Lies was also the first 'Hawks record that didn't unravel the more you wore it. From weary start ("This traveling band was not well received," Louris sings on "The Man Who Loved Life") to sarcastic middle ("I'm gonna be a big star someday") to exhilarating end ("In the middle of a dream, where time plays in between"), it's a rock-and-roll record tinged with country feedback and barroom heartbreak, Byrds echoes and Beatles reverberations.

That the record was dismissed by some fans as dour and glum came as little surprise: Sound of Lies didn't contain any single moment as beautiful as "Blue" off Tomorrow the Green Grass. It didn't get all Tom Petty on you, as the majestic "Waiting for the Sun" did on Hollywood Town Hall. And it didn't daydream, as so many songs off Blue Earth once had. Sound of Lies wasn't a record so much as it was a mood--and if, at times, it moaned or shrugged or frowned, perhaps it was all part of Louris' coming-of-age without his partner of a decade. Besides, three years later, the frown is now upside-down: The band's just-released Smile assembles the same pieces and builds a slightly different vehicle. The sour now soars; the broken heart beats again. At first glance, Smile actually didn't even seem like much of an album, especially when "I'm Gonna Make You" turned into "Who'll Stop the Rain?" Then, the longtime fan wants to reject the drum-machine add-ons and the swelling choirs and the ba-ba-ba-bas and the other pop-radio conceits. After all, this might be the last gasp at success, five albums into a career that so far has made the Jayhawks critical darlings, meaning they sell in a year what Britney Spears sells in an afternoon. But the whole thing suddenly becomes irresistible: the string section that launches the title song's chorus into the heavens, the arena crunch that blows apart the otherwise loping "Somewhere in Ohio," the Gram-and-Emmylou duet turned in by Louris and keyboardist Karen Grotberg on "A Break in the Clouds," the sinewy rhythms of "Queen of the World," the feedback echoes that usher in "Broken Harpoon," and so on and on and on, until the cool lilt of "Baby, Baby, Baby" bids a fond farewell. Sound of Lies, for all its brilliance, was a hard record to listen to; you could play Smile forever. Like the band sings, "I'm gonna make you love me / We're gonna stay together for a million years."

Like its predecessor, Smile actually recalls the three previous Jayhawks records, rock and roll stained in the dark hues of post-Parsons country; the last two discs sound in their first few moments like an extension of Tomorrow the Green Grass, with offhand beauty couched in a deliberate 12-string twang. But where Sound of Lies got weirder and darker and bleaker the further you explored it (it sounded not a little like a Geraldine Fibbers album), Smile starts out on a high and keeps climbing up. "Chin up, chin up," the choir pleads at the album's onset, and though there are a few detours into the badlands ("I see the flashing lights along the highway / You sound lost and desperate on the phone"), it all works out OK, especially when Louris pays a visit to "Mr. Wilson" (Brian, of course, and Alex Chilton) and finds them alone, discarded. "No one knows you quite like I do / You're so used," Louris sings, before reassuring them, "Can't you see my guardian angel looking over me?" Once, Marc Olson made him sound pretty, but alone, Louris sounds much more substantive yet much more spectral--more like a shadow on the wall, always present but hard to get hold of, unlike Smile, which you could fit in your back pocket.

Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky