Songed Birds: Mockingbird Time
I’ve been wanting to write something about Minneapolis based alt-country band, The Jayhawks, for some time, but it wasn’t until recently that they took the easy way out and finally completed the bird reference that is their name with one on an album title as well. It’s about time really, especially since The Jayhawks have been around for a long time, since they broke in as part of the “alt-country” scene, the movement that peaked in the mid-90s with several bands that seemed to grab the baton dropped by bands like the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds. The same movement that eventually spawned more mainstream acts like Wilco. Those first few albums were among the peaks of the genre with expansive arrangements, clever songwriting, and the meandering, intertwining harmonies of Gary Louris and Mark Olsen.
Olsen left the band to deal with health issues, and the subsequent, Louris-led albums, though still pretty good, were far more pop influenced and ot as well-received. The band went on on hiatus following the well-received and stripped down Rainy Day Music, and while both Olsen and Louris did a little touring on their own, it was never quite the same. Louris, especially, had a tendency to write songs that sounded like Jayhawks outtakes, and his keening, nasally voice sounded more than a little thin without his long-time colleague. When word came that they were once again conspiring to record another album as The Jayhawks, many long time fans were excited. The result, Mockingbird Time, shows we had reason to be.
The album is nothing new, if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s intentionally meant to harken back to the band’s peak, with the original Jayhawks line-up from their 1995 album Tomorrow the Green Grass back for the first time in the studio after having toured together for the last couple years. If this is an attempt to to milk those golden years it’s not apparent. They’ve created something new that stands alongside those albums and compares favorably, even if it ultimately falls short of those great albums of the mid-90s. Louris and Olsen sound as good as ever, thought, their voices seeming to need each other in a way that that finds the rare moments when they’re not singing together a bit jarring. With only a couple exceptions, the album sounds like a slightly more produced version of Tomorrow or Hollywood Town Hall. This is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned; with a lineup that includes multiple guitars, piano, and the odd strings, it’s nice to be able to hear everything. It’s the lyrics that hold the album back, though, and while Louris has never been the strongest wordsmith, there are a few here that seem particularly trite. “Tiny Arrows”, in particular, doesn’t work for me, and the closer, “Hey Mr. Man”, tried to be a rocker than doesn’t at all feel really earned.
Missteps aside, this is a fine Jayhawks project. It’s probably too much to ask that they make anything as transcendent as Tomorrow the Green Grass or Hollywood Town Hall again, and I should try to avoid direct comparisons. They were younger then, and had more to prove, and that’s not a mindset that’s easily accessed 20 years later. But Jayhawks fans should be happy with it because, more than anything, it’s just really great to hear Louris and Olsen sing together again.