Music From The North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology
American Recordings, 2009
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/27/2009
The Jayhawks are the band the Eagles might have had a shot at growing into if they had been devoted musical craftsmen rather than a troupe of coked-up Angelenos with an inflated sense of their own importance. Sharing the Eagles’ admiration for Gram Parsons, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Byrds and The Band, the Jayhawks soared past them in terms of musical (if not commercial) accomplishments, a group whose impeccable vocal harmonies and country-folk storytelling were leavened and at times propelled by a flair for smart, jangly alternative rock.
The fact that the Jayhawks – vocalist-guitarists Mark Olson and Gary Louris, bassist Marc Perlman, and a succession of uniquely talented bandmates – named themselves after the Hawks, a.k.a. The Band, tells you a great deal about their musical ambitions. The group both aspired to and somehow achieved that same ability to sound earthy and loose while working their way through intricate, superbly crafted arrangements. Their music manages to feel spontaneous and organic at the very same time its brilliant craftsmanship is in the process of blowing you away.
Music From The North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology is, in ways large and small, as perfect a collection as one could hope for from the group the Village Voice in 1989 declared “the only country rock band that matters.” Twenty tracks are included in this chronologically-ordered collection, ten from the band’s first half, when they were dominated by the Olson/Louris songwriting/vocals tandem, and ten from the band’s second half, after Olson departed and Louris became the group’s creative focal point.
The vocal harmonies on the ’hawks’ early material are simply phenomenal; the ten selections from Blue Earth, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass make the case for Olson and Louris as one of the great harmony tandems of their generation. From the forlorn first verse of loping opener “Two Angels,” their voices intertwine like some otherworldly smashup of Brothers Righteous and Flying Burrito.
“Waiting For The Sun” is the early high point, even if the first time I heard it, I thought to myself “The Jayhawks covered ‘Mary’s Jane’s Last Dance’?” But no, the fuzzy, jagged, rather Stonesy opening riff might be almost identical to the Tom Petty single, but the song soon takes a lilting country-rock turn (not to mention, sharing a riff with a Petty song is nothing but a compliment).
To me the pinnacle of the Olson/Louris partnership, though, has always been “Blue,” with its keening unison lead vocals and supple melodies. I’ve heard the song a hundred times or more, and that chorus still gives me chills just about every time. Simply a masterpiece.
“Blue” and “I’d Run Away” also showcase the evolution of the band’s sound on Tomorrow The Green Grass, as keyboardist/harmony vocalist Karen Grotberg adds a third voice to the harmony charts and gives the arrangements added fullness and drama. “I’d Run Away” also marks Louris’ ascendance as a lead voice and musical craftsman, with its string accents, mutli-layered Louris-Grotberg-Olson harmonies and surgical-strike guitar solos.
Thanks to Grotberg’s addition as a vocal counterpoint for Louris, the most noticeable differences after he assumes the creative helm are that the production gets sharper, with more separation between instruments, and the guitars get bigger and rangier. The music doesn’t lose one bit of complexity in the arrangements and the vocals; if anything, it becomes more diverse as Louris breaks out and ranges farther outside the basic country-rock groove into Beatlesque pop and the occasional crunchy rocker.
The precision-crafted guitar solos on “Trouble” say it all, really – searing and dramatic yet extremely precise, the sound of Louris putting his stamp on the band. That feeling only gets stronger when you get to “Big Star,” a bitter yet richly melodic rant with fat, fuzzed-out guitars and some genuine edge to it (think Superdrag).
Next in the rotation is my entry point for the Jayhawks, their experimental pop album Smile, which many Jayhawks purists had issues with, and which remains my favorite complete musical statement from the band. Ironically enough, though, in retrospect Smile’s shimmering masterpiece “What Led Me To This Town” really harks back to the band's roots. Louris and Grotberg’s voices play off one another spectacularly throughout the song, and the little bridge in the middle where Grotberg takes the lead and sings “Are you keeping a secret / I’m keeping one, too / Can you keep it a secret / I’m in love with you,” is just shatteringly gorgeous, the latter-day corollary to the unforgettable chorus of “Blue.”
And then we arrive at the band’s last stand, 2003’s Rainy Day Music, in which the remaining trio of Louris, Perlman and drummer/vocalist Tim O’Reagan manage to sound remarkably like the original Olson-Louris-led quartet while harmonizing over electric-acoustic-bass-drums arrangements. The best of the four cuts from Rainy Day, “Tailspin,” features a wonderful harmony arrangement, and – for irony’s sake – a sweet banjo track from founding Eagle Bernie Leadon.
A footnote to this anthology is that after a decade of working apart, in recent years Olson and Louris have rekindled their musical partnership and played a number of shows together, both as an acoustic duo and, with Perlman, as the Jayhawks. I doubt any of them know what this means for the future, but news of those voices intertwining once again can’t be considered anything but welcome.
For pure musical craftsmanship, the Jayhawks are tough to beat, and unlike many similar anthologies, Music From The North Country manages to capture the essence of what made the group so special in a single disc. Long may they run.