The Jayhawks are an American band, and not just because they covered Grand Funk Railroad's "Bad Time" on their '95 album. Tomorrow the Green Grass. Fifteen years ago, the Minneapolis band practically invented the Americana/alt-country movement with their patented brand ofrootsy pop-rock. But even then, the Jayhawks' music was just as informed by singer/songwriter Gary Louris' love of British Invasion bands.
The band's prominence on the contemporary rock scene is attested to by Rolling Stone's inclusion of their classic '92 effort, HoIIy\vood Town Hall, among its 34 greatest rock & roll albums of the '90s. The Village Voice called them "the only country-rock band that matters" while influential No Depression named it among the 101 Greatest "Alternative Country" records of all-time There are at least a dozen Internet sites created by Jayhawks fans themselves to document the group's history.
The group's long-awaited sixth album. Smile, their first since '97's moody Sound of Lies and their first distributed by Columbia Records, was produced by the legendary Bob Ezrin. The album simultaneously returns to the band's roots in folk and country ("What Led Me To This Town," "A Break In The Clouds" and "Better Days") and moves forward into a bold, new territory of atmospheric rhythms and psychedelic grunge ("Somewhere In Ohio"), surreal distortion ("Wildest Dreams"). For the first single, "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," the Jayhawks have created a radio-ready anthem, with chiming guitars and soaring harmonies that recall the pop epiphanies of inspired heartland-rock.
The sensuous "A Break In The Clouds," with its country-pop pedal steel andfemme harmonizing (courtesy longtime keyboardist, Karen Grotberg) feels, as the lyrics put it, "like cool cool water running down my back." The cathartic finale, "Baby, Baby, Baby," is the Jayhawks' "Stairway To Heaven," a J.G. Ballard-like tale of a car crash caught in the first person that goes from a southern-rock boogie and a T.Rex "Get It On (Bang-A-Gong)" chorus into a Crazy Horse-like ascending guitar jam which transcends skyward in a hail of "Jesus Christ"-like resurrection.
"We wanted to explore some new territory without pretending to be somebody else," insists Louris, who has been with the band since co-founder Mark Olson asked him if he knew a guitarist back in February, 1985, after the very first Jayhawks gig at the Uptown Bar in Minneapolis. Louris suggested himself and the rest is history.
"We tried to make this more of a rhythmic record," says bassist/vocalist Marc Perlman, who has been a Jayhawk from the very start. "We wanted to get people to shake their asses a little bit. It's something Tim O'Reagan and I have been wanting to do for awhile and we found a kindred spirit in Bob. We wanted people to lock into each song a little more subconsciously and immediately. We wanted to be more direct."
Smile finds the band in a more upbeat frame of mind after the trials and tribulations ofSoundOf'Lies\ which came out just as their label, American Recordings, was splitting with Warner Bros. The title track, "Smile," mines lush pop backdrops and soaring choruses, while the crunching rocker "Life Floats By" examines the hectic pace of touring with guitar flights that at once recall Ezrin's work with Alice Cooper, KISS, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed and, yeah, even Air Supply.
"Well, Alice Cooper's Killer was the first record I ever bought," says Louris. "It's probably the reason I play a Flying Gibson."
Drummer Tim O'Reagan, who gets to sing lead on the Dylanesque "Pretty Thing" after contributing "Bottomless Cup" for his debut with the band on the Sound of Lies album, says the band chose Ezrin only after working for more than a year on the songs in their own 24-track recording facility and at Polara member Ed Ackerson's Flowers Studio in Minneapolis. 'We made a conscious decision, given his track record and proven ability, to give him as much rope as we could," O'Reagan explains. "We felt, with Bob, we had the best chance we'd ever have to reach a wider audience. He came up with a lot of great ideas, while still being open to our suggestions."
"We sent him a tape of 50 songs and he responded with a three-page letter analyzing what needed to be done with every one," recalls Louris. "He told us we needed a lot of work to finish them, but he loved the way we played and where the songs could go. If we were willing to put in the work, he said he'd be there for us.... And he cracked the whip. He forced me to do the nuts-and-bolts, hand-wringing, pacing-the-floor to get every line to mean something."
The hard work and polishing resulted in an album that retains the Jayhawks love for rich melodies and strong hooks, but updates it with state-of-the-art sounds and innovative studio techniques. Smile represents the Jayhawks finally coming into their own and the full emergence of Louris as the band's primary songwriter following the departure of co-leader Mark Olson in '95.
"You have to move on," says Gary, who has been married and had a child since the last album, though lie argues neither has been the reason for his maturation as a band leader. "I love what we used to be, but I'm interested in where else we can go."
The Jayhawks came together in 1985 in Minneapolis with a line-up that included Olson, Perlman and drummer Norm Rodgers. Toledo, Ohio, native Louris-who had been playing with a rockabilly band called Safety Last-joined after the band's very first gig. The Jayhawks recorded their self-titled debut in 1986 for the indie Bunkhouse label, started by sometime music business impresario Charlie Pine, who caught the band opening for Alex Chilton at a local nightclub. Indie Twin Tone Records (then home of fellow Minneapolis bands Replacements and Soul Asylum) was the band's label for their second album, 1989's Blue Earlh released after a hiatus when Louris was injured in a car accident and briefly split to pursue a career as an architect, and Perlman went to work for a publishing company, which later put out two books he had written about film.
During this time, Rogers left to be replaced on drums by Thad Spencer, who Ken Callahan took over from before Tim O'Reagan signed on as their full-time drummer in '95.
American Recordings producer George Drakoulias (Black Crowes) signed the band in 1991 and produced Hollwood Town Hall, their masterful major label debut the following year,. For their 1992 tour, the band added keyboardist Karen Grotberg to the line-up, then continued on the road through 1993. In 1994, they released Tomorrow The Green Grass, whose single, "Blue," featuring Olson and Louris' by-now patented Lennon-McCartney harmonies, became known through its use on VHl's "Crossroads" show. Olson left in 1995 to go solo and spend more time with his wife, singer/songwriter Victoria Williams. The stress this caused the band reflected in the minor key, rather somber mood of 1997's Sound Of Lies.
This album also marked the arrival of fellow Minneapolis band Run Westy Run's Kraig Johnson who also joined Louris and Perlman in their side project. Golden Smog-an altema-country supergroup that included Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy, Wilco's JeffTweedy, Big Star's Jody Stephens, and the Replacements' Chris Mars, putting out a total of three albums all available on Rykodisc, including 1998's Weird Tales.
After Sound of Lies, the Jayhawks decided to regroup, take some time off from the road and concentrate on writing songs, although at this point they had no idea where their label, American Recordings, would find a new home. The band constructed their own 24-track studio, which allowed them to experiment in the songwriting as much as they wanted without having to watch the clock. When it came time to start recording, they went over a list of possible producers and plucked Ezrin. Once recording was completed, keyboardist Karen Grotberg left to raise her baby daughter with the group's good wishes and they added keyboardist/vocalist Jen Gunderman from Raleigh, North Carolina funk band DAG, to their ranks.
Which brings us back to the present and Smile, an album that has nothing to do • with either Brian Wilson's notorious "lost" masterpiece or the famous Charlie Chaplin- penned standard. It has more to do with the Jayhawks' new 'tude, a combination of confidence and an eagerness to prove themselves once and for all as the world-class band they are.
"Our problem is, we think pretty highly of ourselves," says Perlman. "And for good reason. Now we just have to get everybody else to figure that out. We feel we've kept the old spirit there, but it's still growing, getting bigger."
"We're guardedly optimistic," adds Louris. "We worked hard making this record. And we're going to work like hell promoting it. We realize this is a crucial record for us."
Drummer O'Reagan sums it all up. 'We're chomping at the bit to get back out there."
The Jayhawks are back with a Smile.
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