THE JAYHAWKS – XOXO

Stalwarts of the Americana scene, The Jayhawks have gone through a lot of changes over the years, both stylistically and in terms of line-up, but one thing that can usually be relied upon is their ability to release a great album. From their early records full of country influences, to the more commercial ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ from 1992, to the power pop infused ‘Sound of Lies’ and Byrds-ish ‘Rainy Day Music’, each record often borders upon essential listening. Even 2011’s slightly more downbeat ‘Mockingbird Time’ – marking the very brief return of founder member Mark Olson after a sixteen year absence – represented a band somewhere near the top of their game.

The band’s eleventh studio album ‘XOXO’ finds Gary Louris and company really spreading their wings. Rather than sounding like the work of a long-time band leader and his friends, the record is a true collaboration. This, naturally, means a broad mix of styles, both musically and vocally; the dozen tracks on the album’s standard edition take in simple acoustic melodies, bouncing power pop, a few vaguely psychedelic charms and a solid dose of good, old country rock. With three distinctive lead vocalists present within the scaled back four person line up, the shifting between voicesdoesn’t always make this the most consistent Jayhawks record, from a fan’s perspective, it’s always an interesting listen.

Perhaps one of the most striking things about ‘XOXO’ is how much of the spotlight is thrown upon keyboard player Karen Grotberg. Back in the ‘Sound of Lies’ days, she felt as if she was fulfilling the role of session player. Here, she’s an absolutely essential part of the Jayhawks’ musical machine. Whether it’s her Ian McLagan inspired piano work on ‘Across My Field’ – an absolutely essential cut which also finds her harmonising perfectly with Gary – or her standalone voice coming through most strongly, as it does on ‘Ruby’ – a heart-swelling ballad that almost seems to have a Tom Waits influence within the piano work before blossoming into something more obviously Jayhawks created – almost every one of her performances is amazing. ‘Across My Field’, especially, gives fans every reason to pick up this disc (and a spare copy, just in case), as the idea of The Jayhawks taking the bones of an old Faces ballad and really making the style their own results in something absolutely marvellous. The warmth from Marc Perlman’s bass meeting with the piano sets up a timeless 70s mood; Karen’s voice is just as lovely in the way it wavers, whilst an understated steel guitar hints that everyone’s love of country and folk isn’t so far away. There’s a genuine richness to this number that’s equal to any number of earlier Jayhawks greats. If you consider yourself a fan, you need to make this a listening priority.

Grotberg may be ‘XOXO’s absolute star, but that’s not to take anything away from the others. Louris is in fine form throughout, even though at times he takes more of a back seat. He is clearly a man who knows this incarnation of The Jayhawks is great. His chosen laconic style suits so much of the material and on the retro ‘This Forgotten Town’, especially, – used effectively to open the record – his presence is especially reassuring. ‘This Forgotten Town’ is, in many ways, one of ‘XOXO’s most “obviously Jayhawks” songs – it’s slow tempo, semi-acoustic mood could have a root in so much of the band’s earlier works and the way his vocal wobbles against a steady rhythm and ringing guitar feels like the return of an old friend. With the arrival of a different voice for verse two and a great chorus flaunting great harmonies that branch into verse three, the album’s collaborative nature is very clear. A few plays of this is enough to invoke old memories of ‘Hollywood Town Hall’s more relaxed moments and that, obviously, is a major plus. Before the track’s out, though, ‘This Forgotten Town’ feels anything but relaxed, as a very Wilco-esque lead guitar creates a great, rocking climax. In a little under four minutes, the band go from sedate to full-scale country rock, creating the perfect opener with a little something that would, surely, please most fans.

Another standout, ‘Little Victories’ melds various harmonies to very 70s arrangement where a tough bassline borrows from old soul records and a big chorus sounds like it’s crying out for some horns. Although perhaps closer to an old Stephen Stills number than anything else in the Jayhawks canon, it still shows off the band in a favourable way; Perlman’s bass work has the kind of old fashioned and fat sound that so many fail to recreate and plenty of fuzzy guitars with a vaguely bluesy tone add to a great melody. As retro pop-rockers go, you’d be hard pressed to find any others this good in 2020. Although chosen as as a single release, ‘Dogtown Days’ isn’t quite so strong. Drummer Tim O’Reagan takes the lead vocal and in a band full of great singers, his college rock inflected approach is somewhat more of an acquired taste. If you can look beyond a mildly abrasive vocal, the music shows off a solid and muscular rocker that casts The Jayhawks as a 70s rock band wielding a glam-ish stomp. It isn’t in keeping with a lot of the band’s best work – it even sounds a bit out of place on this record; a full-length with no clear identity – but it’s definitely got the guts of something that would work better live and with some volume applied. Perhaps its biggest fault is actually down to album sequencing – by track two, the fans haven’t had time to warm up, let alone take on board something so unexpected. It’s also placed next to a far better retro pop-rocker in ‘Living In A Bubble’, where any late 60s and early 70s influences are bolstered by some brilliant stabbing piano work and an almost McCartney-esque “rumpty-tumpty” rhythm. Again, it’s half a world away from the best bits of ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ and ‘Tomorrow The Green Grass’, but faint echoes of the pop-driven ‘Rainy Day Music’ are hugely welcome and the band sounds like they’re having the best time. After a few listens, chances are, you’ll be fully on board and enjoying this great tune.

Something that finally sounds as if it could’ve had a home on pretty much all of the band’s most famous albums, ‘Homecoming’ isn’t exactly shy in coming across like a throwback to the early 90s. It isn’t just a retread, of course: its verses definitely come much closer to ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ than anything else on ‘XOXO’ but with a huge Beatles influence cutting through the chorus, any callbacks to the power pop of ‘Rainy Day Music’ are just as strong. This makes it feel like an odd hybrid, but between some vaguely psychedelic guitar work and a solid vocal performance from Louris, it definitely ranks among the album’s highlights, while the sparse folk of ‘Down To The Farm’ allows for a little reflection as hushed vocals weave in and out of acoustic strums. Likeable, though never vital, this short tune is the closest the album comes to filler material, but even then, it’s another important demonstration of the band’s abilities to harmonise. More early 70s vibes cut through ‘Illuminate’, a hazy, sun-filled workout that has a beauty within its downbeat style, where a contrast between Beach Boys inspired melodies and the sadness of a Colin Blunstone solo cut battle for dominance. This is potentially the most “60’s” The Jayhawks have ever sounded…and while it doesn’t break any new ground, it’s superb on all counts. With ‘Society Pages’ offering another slab of fuzzy, early 70s power pop through a nineties filter, fans get another chance to enjoy The Jayhawks’ more frivolous side. Vocal filters add to the psychedelic sound, while a simplistic, distorted guitar solo reinforces the retro mood. What’s most interesting about this is that it often sounds most unlike The Jayhawks as most know them, and yet doesn’t actually derail the album, which says so much about ‘XOXO’s scattered nature.

On the whole, ‘XOXO’ isn’t as much fun as ‘Sound of Lies’, nor is it as stately as the more recent ‘Paging Mr. Proust’. You could even say it sounds like an incoherent collection of songs rather than “an album”, but there’s still so much to enjoy. Despite some dramatically contrasting material – the record lurches between country rock, power pop and also draws influence from few very retro singer songwriters, almost as if its creative forces are pulling against each other, like a long piece of elastic – there’s just something at its heart that really works. It isn’t especially a record for first time listeners or even casual observers, but long time fans will certainly find some very absorbing sounds. Once the pieces all start to make sense as a whole, ‘XOXO’ is kind of record that just keeps giving.

[Read a review of 2011’s ‘Mockingbird Time’ here.]

June 2020

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