For the Birds

Mark Pearlman is either in a bad mood or caught in the throws of an identity crisis. He gets irked when he's referred to as "Midwestern," even though his Minneapolis home is planted firmly in the middle of the Midwest. He gets irritated when his band, the Jayhawks, is classified as alt-country, even though its seminal Hollywood Town Hall provided the very blueprint for the genre in the early '90s.

"I think a lot of people's conceptions about us are really off the mark," Pearlman says. "People think of us as this kind of safe alt-country band, made up of a bunch of good guys from the Midwest. But the truth is that we're far from that. We don't sound like that. And when we make records that challenge the ideas people have about us, they don't react as well. We're a band that has changed a lot. People don't like change."

Pearlman is right; many people don't like change. See it as corollary if you will, but for that matter, many people don't like the Jayhawks. Many people have never even heard of them. And that might help explain the reason Jayhawks bassist Mark Pearlman gets a little cranky sometimes.

The Jayhawks have been a stalwart in the alt-country barnyard since way back in '85, when Gary Louris, Mark Olsen, Pearlman and a rotating cast of drummers started playing the circuit in Minneapolis. But since day one, they've been saddled with the painful curse of being critical faves who could never get a real audience. The set of gritty, midtempo gems that make up their keystone work, Hollywood Town Hall, birthed minions of imitators (Whiskeytown and the Old 97's being the best of the bunch) and is considered one of the defining documents of the roots-rock revival. Their biggest "hit" probably came when the acoustic guitar riff off "Blue," from 1995's Tomorrow in the Green Grass, was looped and used as theme music for VH1's short-lived Crossroads video hour. But shortly after, co-front man Mark Olsen left the group to get married and write songs with neo-folkie Victoria Williams. Under the sole direction of Louris, the band on a decidedly more poppy bent, many original fans bailed. It's like Pearlman says: People don't like change.

But the story of the Jayhawks is one of resilience. Amid rumors of a breakup, the group released a dark, psychedelic pop effort with 1997's Sound of Lies that established a newcomer, songwriting drummer Tim O'Reagan, to be a major contributor to the group (the O'Reagan-penned "Bottomless Cup" stands out among the record's best). Three years later, Smile saw the band trying its hand at sunny, Big Star-flavored power pop, though there was a lackluster response. For a while it looked like the Jayhawks' 20-year career--populated by revolving-door members and wrought with faux brushes with stardom--was doomed.

"When people talk about our history, it can be a little daunting," Pearlman says. "Some people get too wrapped up with it, and a lot is made of it for some reason. But when you think about how long we've been a band and how long we've known each other, I don't think it is particularly abnormal. For the last few years it's been a really stable group with Gary, me and Tim at the core. Especially in the last decade, Tim has been a huge part of the band. Pretty much everyone else was just brought in with a certain purpose in mind. We would have a sound in mind and find a player that we thought could fit the part."

Funny, then, that when the trio of survivors all but abandoned sidemen on their latest effort, Rainy Day Music, it was hailed by many critics and longtime fans as the Jayhawks' triumphant comeback. It didn't hurt that it was issued on Island Def Jam's do-no-wrong subsidiary Lost Highway (home to Ryan Adams, Johnny Cash and the Oh Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack), but older fans loved it for purely nostalgic reasons: They had their good ol', country-lovin' Jayhawks back. Its successful rekindling of the band's early flames was unexpected, but according to Pearlman, it was part of their plan.

"Gary is a premeditated person, and he spends a lot of time on his craft," Pearlman says. "He spends a long time before handworking and reworking songs, so by the time we get into the studio everything is mostly well set. There is never a question of style or presentation; there can't be. In the studios and environments that you are in, you just can't afford it. In some ways, we knew what kind of record this would be before it was made."

Ethan Johns' evocative production gave the record a hint of the denim-and-corduroy aesthetics that old fans loved, and Louris' songwriting had a renewed urgency. The plaintive, acoustic guitar-based songs offered a more mature echo of Hollywood Town Hall. The band finally seemed to realize the potential of its impressive start. Just like that, the Jayhawks were back from the brink of obscurity.

"I think every single time we do a record we hope it will give us some kind of second wind," Pearlman says. "This record just happens to be the one. There was a better situation with the kind of label that it came out on, and the timing and everything was better. I think everything has proven that we're a persistent band. And finally getting some respect for that now is really reassuring."

In numbers alone, the band is probably enjoying as much respect now as it ever has. Rainy Day Music immediately yielded good reviews and debuted at No. 51 on the Billboard chart, much higher than any other record in the band's history. But by being older and wiser the band has learned to be cautious about its success.

"We'll see what happens," Pearlman says when asked to forecast the band's future. "We never make long-term plans anymore. Sometimes when I tell people that, they freak out and think we're packing in. But it isn't like that at all. At this point in our lives we are taking more control of our careers. The amount of time we're all able to stay interested in playing in this band is partially based on each member having a freedom to pursue their own musical aspirations and not get bored. Sometimes we just need to get away from each other."

But that won't be anytime soon. Pearlman is about to jump into another extensive stint of touring. And since the summer release of Rainy Day Music, touring has become a way of life. The band spent the greater part of the summer spreading its gospel in the United States and overseas, sharing stages with Neil Young, Lucinda Williams and Matthew Sweet's new project, The Thorns. Sound like fun? You'd better not tell that to Pearlman, or you might get cuffed.

"Touring is always really hard work, and I'll slap anyone who says it's not," Pearlman says, bemoaning the fact that financial restraints limit the band's luxuries on the road. "We do things with just half a bus instead of a full bus, and half a crew instead of a full crew. We're only traveling as a quartet, but when we go out we just want it to sound huge. We want it to sound like a hundred people."

Happily, it doesn't. It just sounds like four people who finally know what they're doing.

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Nate Cavalieri

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