The Jayhawks

Thirty Tigers, 2020


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


For the bulk of the Jayhawks’ 35-year career, Gary Louris has been the group’s leading creative force. During the band’s first decade (and again during a brief reunion), he shared the frontman role with co-founder and fellow vocalist/guitarist Mark Olson, but for most of the last 25 years Louris has been the band’s principal songwriter and lead vocalist.

That reality has meant that Louris’ distinct vision, a heady stew of harmony-heavy country-rock and British Invasion-inspired pop-rock, has also served as the Jayhawks’ musical identity for most of that span of time. All of which makes XOXO a fascinating experiment: the first time the band—Louris (guitars/vocals), Marc Perlman (bass/vocals), Karen Grotberg (keyboards/vocals) and Tim O’Reagan (drums/vocals)—has opened up its creative process and worked up one another’s songs as a true collective.

You might expect some degree of chaos and confusion to result, but if anything, XOXO serves to confirm that the band’s sonic architecture has always rested on a firm foundation of shared musical sensibilities. Now the core of the band for the better part of a quarter century, this foursome’s craft is so consistent and congruent that even with four writers and lead singers in play, every track here is instantly recognizable as a Jayhawks song.

Kickoff cut “This Forgotten Town” feels like classic Jayhawks, a richly melodic country-inflected acoustic number with strong piano undertones, credited to Perlman, Louris and O’Reagan. Louris’s voice eases you in and then hands off to O’Reagan for a second verse, before Grotberg joins at the chorus in three-part harmonies that launch the song into the sky. Louris’ brief, urgent electric solo serves as the cherry on top of this album’s overture-slash-topic sentence.

Next up, O’Reagan’s driving “Dogtown Days” takes a garage rock / power-pop turn that’s more Big Star than Gram Parsons, but still very much in character for the band that made that lost crossover masterpiece my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Smile. O’Reagan’s voice has a keening quality and lived-in grit that reminds of Dylan in tone if not phrasing. Much like The Chicks’ “March March,” Louris’ lilting shuffle “Living In A Bubble” couldn’t be more timely despite having been written and recorded many months ago, a gentle screed against cable news sensationalism that works equally well as a quarantine theme song.

Grotberg take the lead vocal role for her wistful ballad “Ruby,” her distinctive tone and graceful touch at the piano complemented beautifully by harmonies and subtle instrumental accents from the other three. It’s a track dominated by Grotberg that nonetheless feels of a piece with past Jayhawks ballads in its slumbery beauty. The pace then picks up again with Louris’ “Homecoming,” sweetly psychedelic verses punctuated by assertive electric guitar chords, leading into a satisfying chorus.

O’Reagan’s “Society Pages” might be the biggest stylistic stretch here, a strummy acoustic pop number that mocks social pretension in edgy fashion, highlighted by one great line: “You can never trust a man / Who can’t finish his beer” (noted). Next up, “Illuminate” is another Perlman/Louris/O’Reagan co-write, its rather sleepy, sing-songy opening verses accelerating into a classic-rock-inflected call-and-answer chorus, the vocal arrangement gradually achieving enough complexity and lift to make both Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney smile.

Harmony-rich story song “Bitter Pill” returns to that supple-rocking classic Jayhawks template, a Louris/O’Reagan/Grotberg co-write featuring former Jayhawk Stephen McCarthy on Harrison-esque slide guitar and Louris at the mic. Grotberg takes another turn at the mic with “Across My Field,” her rolling piano out front as the band’s trademark harmonies light up the chorus, with former member John Jackson contributing violin.

Late-album highlight “Little Victories” is a dynamic Louris/O’Reagan cowrite with a Van Morrison white soul feel on the verses—rolling beat, Hammond organ, unison vocals—before ramping up for its big driving choruses. Perlman delivers a suitably dusty lead vocal on his solo write “Down On The Farm,” a haunting acoustic waltz about being an artist of a certain age: “It’s too cold to be living so long / In a world ruled by the young.”

Warm yet melancholy album closer “Looking Up Your Number” finds O’Reagan alone late in the evening, strumming his acoustic guitar and longing for a former lover, a bit of poignant solitude to finish things out. The CD version of XOXO features a trio of bonus tracks: “Jewel Of The Trimbelle” by Grotberg, “Then You Walked Away” by Louris, and “Hypocrite’s Lament” by Perlman/Louris, each of them solid enough, but appropriately presented as extras rather than essentials.

XOXO breaks new ground for the iconic yet perpetually low-key Jayhawks by spreading the frontperson duties around without ever losing the distinctive musical thread that brought these four together in the first place. As a group, the Jayhawks have never sounded more confident, more melodic, and more in the collective groove than they do on this album, which might lack some of the high highs of their very best work, but leaves no doubt that it’s another essential piece of their story.

Rating: B+

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