Rhythm & Views

The Jayhawks

It's been three years since the Jayhawks last, Smile, was released on Columbia/Sony, which as it turns out is about an average gap between efforts for the Minneapolis-based roots rockers. In between then and now, lead singer and songwriter Gary Louris has recorded and performed with founding member Mark Olson (fueling idle speculation that the two would reunite under the Jayhawks moniker). The group has confronted label difficulties--resolved by Rick Rubin and his affiliation with Lost Highway and Universal Music Group (what don't they have their tentacles in?)--and Louris endured a scary bout with pericarditis that forced the Jayhawks to postpone a scheduled album kickoff tour. He's fine, and the record is doing well. But is it good?

Rainy Day Music is an interesting step for the Jayhawks in terms of their musical direction. They've always mined a jangle-pop, CSN-type vein, but on their last, with keyboard player Karen Grotberg still in the fold and a focus on synth and percussion loops courtesy of Bob Ezrin, it seemed they were perhaps aping their peers in Wilco by de-emphasizing the country influence and concentrating more on pop. But on Rainy Day Music, the old influences are once again at the fore. The pioneering sound of the Byrds can be heard on nearly every song, and the vocal harmonizing ("Save It for a Rainy Day," "Will I See You in Heaven," the whole damn album), some of which includes Matthew Sweet and Jakob Dylan, is vintage Crosby, Stills and Nash. While this is a potentially regressive maneuver for other bands, it feels right when Louris and Co. do it. It's a homecoming.

Initially, there seems a lot to quibble with in Louris' lyrics. A sampling of some of the many seeming clichés include "smoke and mirrors," "you're going down," "I was outside looking in," "looking like a train wreck," "there's another part to play," "time ... keeps slipping away," "had a fall from grace," and "been down this road before," as have we. But upon repeated listens, something different becomes apparent--the clichés are simply a kind of shorthand, the vernacular of pop music. With Louris' expressive voice, the simplest, most hackneyed expressions take on new shades and nuances of meaning. A seeming weakness becomes, if not a strength, at least something appropriate for the idiom.

So, is it a good album? Well, yes and no. Fans will like it, but Rainy Day Music does not stir the soul, exactly. If we examine the album title's stated purpose for the contents therein, by implication, then, it's music for when you're feeling either melancholy or ennui because of the imposition of precipitation. Through the sheer quality of his achingly tender voice, Louris has always achieved perfect-pitch melancholy. "Angelyne", a wistful regret ballad, strikes the signature Jayhawks balance between arch sentimentality and maudlin posturing. But intentionally or not, Rainy Day Music also captures boredom a little too well for its own good. It's sometimes challenging to get through the whole album without moving on to something else. If you're curious about the band, though, and want to decide if you like them or not, start with Hollywood Town Hall.

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