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Face it, folks... bands change. Sure, you really wish your favorite band would've kept that great sound from what was obviously their best album, but hey, wouldn't that be boring and redundant? Some music journalists of late have copped this "they were better when..." attitude with the Jayhawks, who produced two of the best roots rock albums of the 90's with Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass. Since then, critics continue to lament the 1995 departure of singer/guitarist Mark Olson. Come on, guys... he's been gone for five years! Besides, the most engaging moments of those landmark albums ("Waiting For The Sun," "Settled Down Like Rain," "Blue" and "I'd Run Away") were primarily penned by singer/guitarist Gary Louris. (If you want to go with the old Beatles analogy, Olson was the McCartney to Louris' Lennon.)

With Olson's mellower inclinations gone, Louris struggled with the band's identity before deciding to keep the Jayhawks name and continue in a more pop/rock direction. In 1997, the band, consisting of Louris, founding bassist Marc Perlman, drummer/vocalist Tim O'Reagan, keyboardist/vocalist Karen Grotberg and guitarist Kraig Johnson, returned with the melancholy (and largely underrated) Sound of Lies. Although that album featured instant Jayhawks classics like "Trouble" and "It's Up To You," it also introduced an edgier sound on songs like "Think About It" and "Dying On The Vine."

While Sound of Lies touched on Louris' post-Olson (and post-divorce) hardships, the latest Jayhawks album Smile is, as its name implies, a much sunnier affair. With veteran producer Bob Ezrin at the helm, it continues the band's pop experimentation and finally gives Louris reason to rock out on his Flying V guitar. Miles down the road from the band's folky beginnings, tunes like "Queen Of The World," "Life Floats By" and "(In My) Wildest Dreams" are guitar-driven rave-ups that benefit from Ezrin's experience with arena acts like Pink Floyd, KISS and Alice Cooper. Meanwhile, songs like "A Break In The Clouds" and "What Led Me To This Town" echo back to the days of Tomorrow the Green Grass, albeit with drum loops and strings added to the mix. Other highlights include the anthemic title track and the dreamy "Broken Harpoon," which are enhanced by three-part vocal harmonies and Beatlesque production.

Of course, the Jayhawks aren't alone in their roots-rock-gone-pop transition. Jayhawks friend and Golden Smog cohort Jeff Tweedy made almost every critics Top 10 list last year with Wilco's astonishing Summer Teeth, and Joe Henry (who featured Louris and Perlman on two albums) also turned to pop experimentation with his recent Trampoline and Fuse albums. Along with these contemporaries, the band has realized that change is an inevitable part of making vital music. With the optimistic outlook of Smile, hopefully the Jayhawks' progression will bring them the recognition and success they've always deserved.

--Eric Schneider


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[email protected] | May 2000 | Volume 5