Tomorrow The Green Grass (Legacy Edition)

The Jayhawks

American/Legacy, 2011

http://www.jayhawksofficial.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/18/2011

How do you improve on a classic?

Some pretty good Legacy Edition packages have come out in recent years, but I’m hard-pressed to think of one as jam-packed with wonderfulness as this two-disc re-release of Americana wunderkinds The Jayhawks’ Tomorrow The Green Grass (or TTGG).

The original 1995 edition of TTGG marked the consensus high point of the group’s entire long and diverse career, which has until recently been divided neatly in half by co-founder/vocalist/guitarist Mark Olson’s strong presence through the first half, and departure after TTGG.  This album also marked the debut with the group of harmony vocalist/keyboard player Karen Grotberg, who had a major impact on their sound, adding texture, complexity and richness to the already-remarkable vocal harmonies of Olson and co-founder/guitarist/latter-day lead voice Gary Louris. 

After many years of working apart, over the past few years Olson and Louris have gradually eased into what has developed in 2010-11 into a full-on reunion of the TTGG-era lineup of Olson, Louris, Grotberg and Marc Perlman (bass), with latter-day drummer Tim O’Reagan taking the place of TTGG session drummer Don Heffington.  The first herald of all of this activity was last year’s outstanding anthology Music From The North Country; the second is a pair of reissues, this one of TTGG and an accompanying one of its predecessor Hollywood Town HallTTGG is by far the more expansive of the reissues at two full discs, including an entire disc spotlighting the semi-legendary “Mystery Demos” (for the uninitiated, more on that later).

The first and foremost pleasure here is Tomorrow The Green Grass itself.

Most notable albums start off strong; it’s hard to imagine a stronger start than leading with two of the best songs in the band’s entire catalog—hell, probably two of the best songs in the entire genre of modern roots music.  The way the country-folk masterpiece “Blue” builds through its winding verses, progressing steadily to the massive melodic payoff at the chorus, is simply musical alchemy at its very finest.   I can’t tell you why this particularly sequencing of chords, rhythms and triple-wide vocal harmonies makes every single hair on the back of my neck stand at attention, but it surely does, time after time. 

It’s also the perfect topic sentence for the Olson-Louris approach to songwriting, full of rich, earthy, classicist music supporting impressionistic, painterly lyrics full of images, allusions, and non-linear story-telling.  It feels a little like going to an art opening in plaid flannel and torn jeans… and discovering everyone else is dressed down, too… and discovering it’s the best art opening ever.

In any case… did I mention range?  Because the timeless, bewitching “Blue” has barely faded out when “I’d Run Away” hits you with a driving symphonic opening (!) before dropping into one of Olson and Louris’ finest moments as songwriters, an eloquent and emphatic declaration of love (“I’d run away / I’d run away with you, baby”) set to a propulsive country-rock beat, with Louris singing lead and Olson and Grotberg supporting. 

Third up in this album’s one-two-three (-four-five-etc.) punch is the jubilant “Miss Williams’ Guitar,” a celebratory tune Olson wrote about meeting his future wife Victoria Williams, featuring himself on lead vocals and Louris ripping out a series of dynamic electric solos that achieve a certain majesty without losing their fuzzy edge (think Neil Young, with focus).  “I remember watching her play / And the whole damn crowd seemed so far away”—a moment indeed.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

This lineup’s range asserts itself further as “Two Hearts” presents a gentle, aching ballad, before “Real Light” accelerates the tempo once again behind Louris’s alternately raging and chugging electric.  “Bad Time,” the one cover here, dresses up the hook-filled old Grand Funk Railroad nugget with the group’s spectacular three-part harmonies, finishing off with an abbreviated end solo that sounds like Louris channeling George Harrison circa 1970.

The second half of the album never loses steam, rolling strong and steady all the way through raucous closer “Ten Little Kids,” in which Olson and Louris cut loose with a rollicking honky-tonk number that illustrates beautifully the energy of the lyric about kids running, laughing, jumping, playing.  It’s a romp, albeit one that still manages to incorporate the group’s incredible vocal harmonies.   The way the song winds down to close with a little flourish of feedback is the perfect exclamation point to an amazing album (as well as a device Louris would repeat on Smile five years later).

But wait, there’s more…

The bonus tracks on disc one are a second, smaller pleasure. One of the interesting footnotes to TTGG is that the title comes from the title of a song that did not appear on the album, but showed up on a b-side and shows up here as one of the disc one bonus tracks. It probably ended up where it belonged; it’s not better than any of the tracks that made it onto the original album -- it’s just an interesting choice to make. The other four cuts include another b-side and three unreleased tunes from the Green Grass sessions, all solid, though also serving as evidence of good decisions about what made the cut on the original album.

The second disc, consisting of 18 tracks culled from what have become known in Jayhawks fan lore as “The Mystery Demos,” is the grand payoff to this terrific package.  Talked about and circulated in bootleg form for the better part of the last decade, these are the very best of a set of demos that the always-prolific Louris and Olson cut in 1992 as they were working on the library of songs that would eventually be culled to form the core of TTGG.  The demos were set aside, only to turn up a decade later in the proverbial “box in someone’s closet,” from whence they circulated widely among Jayhawks aficionados.  Five or six of the songs test-driven here ended up on TTGG, and a number of others would eventually turn up on later recordings—by the Jayhawks, by Olson’s subsequent vehicle Mark Olson & The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, by Louris and Perlman’s longtime supergroup side project Golden Smog, and by Louris and Olson themselves, on their 2008 duo album Ready For The Flood—but many other hidden gems continued to languish until now. 

The demos are really delightful artifacts.  Simply arranged with Olson and Louris playing dueling acoustic guitars, they are accompanied on the first group of tracks by future Olson sideman Razz Russell on violin, sometimes adding harmonica as well. The demos became a sensation in fan circles, in part for the mystery surrounding the timing and eventual disposition of the songs covered, but also for their uncluttered beauty. And while I’m nowhere near qualified to deliver this sort of comprehensive annotated analysis, I’ll say this: they’re a damned fine piece of work and a sweet bonus to what was already a terrific package. (Alright, can’t resist two specific song comments: “She Picks The Violets” is just achingly beautiful, and the raw demo version of “Blue,” titled “Blue From Now On (take 2),” is every inch as much a stunner as the final product; comparing the two versions is like looking at a diamond from two different angles.)

The thing about the Olson-Louris Jayhawks is that the two lead voices/songwriters found a kind of yin-yang balance between Olson’s heavily Gram Parsons-influenced country-folk and Louris’s adventurous Beatlesque pop-rock that allowed them to create together some of the finest songs of this or any era. Their two voices always worked together beautifully, and with the addition of Grotberg as a third vocal component, the depth and richness of the harmonies the band was capable of producing were nothing short of spectacular. 

The fact that the Jayhawks’ strongest lineup managed to stay together for just one great—and commercially disappointing—album has always felt rather bittersweet until now. But sometimes life gives you second chances, and here they are, preparing to seize the moment. (Thousands of Jayhawks fans and) I can’t wait.

Rating: A

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