Jayhawks Trade in Their Twang for a Giddy Buzz
Nothing can wreck a creative hot streak faster than a little joy. Look at Bruce Springsteen’s output since his blissful second marriage, or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s work after he sobered up and lost the blues.
So it might worry longtime fans that the Jayhawks’ new album is titled “Smile” (Sony/Columbia) and that the record is filled with swoony tunes about love, self-discovery and joy.
Not that the Jayhawks have been particularly depressed during their 15-year reign as one of alternative country’s most popular acts. They have, however, slowly been shedding their twang. And their latest is a virtually twang-free production, with violins and air kisses replacing the steel guitars and whiskey bottles that gave their early work a hint of honky-tonk nostalgia.
The band is now either deeply content or faking it with brio. And while a good third of “Smile” gets carried away with its own giddiness, the Jayhawks have come up with some gorgeous melodies--not one for every song, but enough for this cheerful double latte of an album to deliver a nifty buzz.
“Smile” will startle fans who haven’t checked in with this Minneapolis quintet since it started aiming for a mellow, harmonizing pop sound. The change can be traced to the departure of Mark Olson, who co-founded the band in 1985, and wrote and sang some of its most memorable music in the decade that followed, starting with a straight country album now so difficult to find that it fetches hundreds of dollars a copy.
After that, the Jayhawks released a sepia-toned masterwork (the inexplicably overlooked “Blue Earth” in 1989), won critical accolades (with 1992’s “Hollywood Town Hall”) and nearly scored a hit (with “Blue” from 1995’s “Tomorrow the Green Grass”).
Olson was so central to the creation of this outstanding work that some truth-in-advertising issues are raised by the continued use of “the Jayhawks” as a brand name. One could easily argue that Gary Louris, the band’s remaining founding member, should have re-christened the group. Or maybe the cover of “Smile” should have a sticker that announces “Not featuring Mark Olson!”
Louris, of course, isn’t the first rocker to understand the value of franchise-building, and his voice is so distinctive that no matter what he calls his band, it’s going to sound like the Jayhawks anyway.
Unfortunately, he has yet to find a collaborator equal to Olson. The least effective parts of “Smile” were penned by Marc Perlman, who co-wrote “Pretty Thing,” a song bland enough to belong on a Foreigner album.
Louris is frequently a gifted songwriter, but he needs someone to play Lennon to his McCartney, an ironist who could curb a sentimentalism that occasionally gets too long a leash on “Smile.” Songs like “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” are just a string section away from a spot in Disney’s next feature. The title track lands us squarely in fortune-cookie territory, with Louris encouraging a friend to “Smile when you’re down and out / Find something inside you,” and reminding that “You don’t really have a problem / Chin up, chin up / In your hour of despair.”
Good advice, of course, but a lesson that somehow seems as evanescent as the bubbly music that delivers it. Ecstasy finally gets the better of the band on “Baby, Baby, Baby,” which ends with Louris muttering “So beautiful, so beautiful,” as though all these good vibrations finally rendered him nearly catatonic.
Louris shines brightest when he lets his love bulb dim a bit, as he does on “What Led Me to This Town,” which finds him back in the search-for-meaning mode and harmonizing through one of his most beautiful choruses. “A Break in the Clouds” endearingly imagines romance as the moment when the mere glimpse of a lover is like “cool, cool water running down my back.” Letting an electronica influence seep in, the band thumps through the lovely "(In My) Wildest Dreams” and gets slightly morose on “Broken Harpoon.”
But the downbeat mood is fleeting. Quite simply, the Jayhawks have grown up and fallen deeply in love, and, like a lot of grown-ups who are deeply in love, they seem a little overbearing at times. But not always.
“Smile” is like a road trip with buddies who think every vista is breathtaking and are right a little more than half the time.