The Jayhawks

American Recordings, 2000

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Smile started out feeling like a long-overdue exploratory journey to me. I'd heard a fair amount about the Jayhawks before: a smart alt-country/country-rock collective with a pair of gifted songwriters/lead voices, one of whom (Mark Olson) left the band a few years back. Named one of the most influential bands of the decade by Rolling Stone, made a "classic" album several years back (1991's Hollywood Town Hall), critics' darlings, etc. etc.

In other words, one of those bands I kept telling myself I ought to know more about… but didn't. I'd never heard a single song by them before picking up this album a month ago.

The opening title tune was all it took for me to know I was in for something special. Dreamy lyrics, densely layered male-female harmony vocals, and rock instrumentation filled out with an assertive string section. I could hear the "alt," but where was the "country"? Of course, the end result was probably just what the band was going for in the case of rookie listeners like me: from that point forward, I cast aside all expectations and just drank in this remarkable album.

The Jayhawks draw deeply from influences ranging from Gram Parsons to R.E.M. and everything in between, while managing to put their unique stamp on every tune. They'll drill out a letter-perfect slice of Byrds/Tom Petty jangle-rock like "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," yet imbue it with a completely unique (and in this case, decidedly off-center) point of view. Then they'll grab onto a sleepy acoustic riff like the one that anchors "What Led Me To This Town" and convince you they're about to serve up a straightforward country ballad, right up until the song blossoms into its striking, hauntingly beautiful chorus.

The latter track also gives you another taste of the rich harmonies between lead singer Gary Louris and keyboard player/harmony vocalist Karen Grotberg (who departed for maternity leave just prior to the album's completion, to be replaced by Jen Gunderman). It's a gorgeous effect used numerous times on this smartly arranged album, without ever coming close to wearing out its welcome.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

At this point, it seems like track four could be just about anything. And it is… "Somewhere in Ohio" kicks off with a simple acoustic strum and a single looping keyboard tone layered over a techno-flavored beat. Louris croons two elusive, vaguely threatening opening verses ("You were feeling like a bomb without a target")… the music slowly builds… and then the electric guitars kick in with a stunning crunch, upping the ante a good 50 decibels. From there, the song falls back and surges again and again, coloring the basic rhythm track with guitars that range from Jangle 101 to feedback-laden power chords, plus an incredibly infectious "Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba" pop chorus. It's a little of this, a little of that, and a knockout all the way.

Playing it smart, the Jayhawks then bring it back home with the simply stunning countrified ballad "A Break In The Clouds." Some actual slide guitar soars over Grotberg's artful piano melodies as she and Louris offer up another achingly pretty chorus-in-harmony: "Every time that I see your face / It's like cool, cool water running down my back."

It's tempting at this point to simply end the review with "etc., etc.," because the rest of the disc is equally rangy, gutsy, smart and beautiful. Veering from airy pop ("Queen Of The World," "Mr. Wilson") to melodic heavy rock ("Life Floats By," "Pretty Thing"), to the plaintive, enigmatic ballad "Broken Harpoon," the Jayhawks just keep surprising you. Double-time techno beats are paired with distorted guitars and soaring pop choruses ("Wildest Dreams"), sounding somehow right at home alongside Dylanesque laments ("Better Days").

With Olson's departure, Louris is now the band's principal songwriter, but many of the best songs here are the results of his collaborations with Grotberg, bassist Marc Perlman, and drummer Tim O'Reagan. Perlman and O'Reagan's influence is especially evident in the strong rhythm tracks that characterize the whole album - a trademark also of producer Bob Ezrin (of The Wall fame), who clearly encouraged the band to push its limits.

Going for the big exit - and scoring - the Jayhawks finish Smile with the thundering, epic "Baby, Baby, Baby," in which Louris adopts the role of a fellow whose sudden, spectacular demise may somehow redeem his betrayal of his lover. (Is this Shakespeare or rock and roll??) A delicately modulated, almost tuneful wail of feedback closes things out with panache.

What the Jayhawks have accomplished is what the best bands strive to: use their influences as a launching point rather than a template. There are references to Parsons/McGuinn, Buck/Stipe, Jagger/Richards and 70s heavy metal sprinkled throughout Smile. Yet the music and lyrics are sparklingly original start to finish. Call it roots rock, call it "y'allternative," call it new traditionalist … call it whatever you want. It's thoroughly modern music that respects the past; carefully conceived music that ignores boundaries; smartly imagined music that aims high, dares much and succeeds brilliantly.

Rating: A

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© 2000 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of American Recordings, and is used for informational purposes only.