Rainy Day Music

The Jayhawks

Lost Highway Records, 2003


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Change is hard -- for proof, just ask a Jayhawks fan.

The conventional wisdom among the Jayhawks' loyal cult following seems to be that 2000's polished, Bob Ezrin-produced Smile was too poppy, despite its vast musical variety and relentless energy. Long-time fans generally prefer the more languid, contemplative alt-country style of the band's breakthrough album Hollywood Town Hall. Thus, there has been much rejoicing in anticipation of Rainy Day Music, which sees the band ditch the Smile sound -- and half its prior lineup -- for a return to the smaller, tighter, alt-country guitar-and-harmonies sound heard on their earlier discs.

Problem is, I'm not one of those Jayhawks fan. I didn't like Smile; I flat-out loved it. It's a meticulously crafted album that melds gorgeous country-rock laments with hard-edged rock and roll and fills out every track with a dazzling soundscape of loops, effects, Beatlesque harmonies and sneaky undercurrents of humor. In a word, a masterpiece.

Hollywood Town Hall, on the other hand, I've never even bothered to review because I still can't figure out what makes it tick. The production is flat and one-dimensional, the songs lack sonic diversity and flow into one another like one long, dreamy lament. Maybe that spells greatness for some folks; I've never managed to make it through my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 HTH without getting bored. Sacrilege, I know, but that's my honest opinion.

On first listen, I was deeply disappointed with Rainy Day Music. Singer/guitarist/songwriter/mastermind Gary Louris still has a great voice -- formidably expressive whether in falsetto or his normal tenor -- and writes clever, insightful lyrics with an ageless wisdom to them. But the band's return to a more naturalistic, stripped-down sound initially felt like a retreat to me, a let-down from Smile's wild creativity and endlessly varied textures. It was like going from 256 colors to black and white.

Then a funny thing happened as I listened to this album again, and again, and again. From the more limited sonic palette employed by Louris and remaining bandmates Marc Perlman (bass) and Tim O'Reagan (drums/vocals), a set of remarkable songs began to emerge and take on individual identities before my ears.

Songs like "Tailspin," "Eyes of Sarahjane" and "Come To The River" move from steady-on melancholy into surging, note-perfect choruses. Chiming-guitar / country-rock inventors The Byrds have influenced roughly ten thousand bands since 1967, but rarely have the results been this sublime. And although the vibe is gentler and subtler, the electric guitars haven't been neglected; to the contrary, Louris gets in a number of sweet licks, as if to remind you that the fire lit by Smile hasn't been extinguished, it's just being channeled in a different way.

The rich melodies of cuts like the gentle "All The Right Reasons" and the lilting "Save It For A Rainy Day" retain the flavor of the band's best moments as a sextet with their carefully arranged harmonies. While the band is down to a core trio, they fill out their sound with support from guitarist/vocalist Stephen McCarthy, producer/multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns and stellar guest vocalists Matthew Sweet and Chris Stills (whose dad has spent a little time in a band that does pretty well with harmonies, too).

Rainy Day Music incorporates lessons learned from both Smile and the albums that preceded it and pours them into a set of songs that both demand and deserve your quiet attention. Change is hard, but also rewarding, and sometimes black and white photos capture nuances you could never uncover with the gaudy overkill of full color.

Rating: A-

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© 2003 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 Lost Highway Records, and is used for informational purposes only.