The Jayhawks – [Album]

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

It's funny to look back now, and see how alternative rock and grunge totally inverted the plains of “mainstream” and “underground” music. In the early Nineties, there's no arguing that bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains were the dominant institutions of the day but, if one looks a little closer and deconstructs the fanfare that those bands generated, it's possible to see that there was something very unusual going on underneath; Soundgarden was tied to the underground from the outset (early albums were released on SST), the members of Pearl Jam had come up through a succession of cult bands before they broke and Nirvana never really intended to do anything great at all – if one believes the interviews that Kurt Cobain gave at the time. In effect, many of the bands that made the biggest impressions in the early Nineties reveled in their “limited potential” but became superstars in spite of themselves. Conversely, the bands that were ready, willing and able to break in a big way simmered in the underground; just waiting for tastes to change. The Jayhawks are a perfect example of that latter group.

Now, that isn't meant to imply that The Jayhawks never received their proper due, just that it came late. In a perfect world, the Minnesota-based band would have stormed the mainstream with Hollywood Town Hall because, whether by accident or design, they ended up setting much of the formative groundwork for “alt-country,” the No Depression scene and modern “country rock” with their American debut (third album in total). Listening back to it now, it's possible to pick out the basic building blocks that bands like Wilco and Son Volt would later stand upon to ultimately attain the lauded positions they now occupy in the mainstream.

So how did The Jayhawks do it? Simple – by sounding like a bunch of alt-rockers trying to play genuine and totally un-ironic country rock – and succeeding beautifully.

Listeners will swear they can almost hear the ecstatic wail of a sold-out house as the guitar slap of “Waiting For The Sun” opens the album and sets The Jayhawks up as a tested and proven group of road warriors coming home and into their own. There's a decidedly anthemic growl to that guitar part which causes it to just roll out with a self-assured posture that none of The Jayhawks' peers (including The Replacements, Husker Du and Soul Asylum) asserted before, and the musicianship follows suit with it; three albums in, and The Jayhawks come off as muscular contenders right off the bat, with a set of chops varied enough to evoke different emotions at the drop of a hat.

The band's authoritative flexibility proves to be the thing which is able to win listeners as the record progresses. After that first distinctly rockist turn in “Waiting For The Sun,” The Jayhawks shift gears immediately for the heartfelt and longing balladry of “Crowded In The Wings” and then does it again to show R.E.M. how soul-baring from south should be done through “Clouds” before “Two Angels” wakes Neil Young's muses for a bit of faith testing. At each turn, singer/guitarists Gary Louris and Mark Olson match and compliment each other's emotional states and end up pouring themselves out for audiences to examine as they do; here, the singers prove their star power as neither one tries to jump to the foreground or surpass the other. Not that they could anyway, because, here, they feed off of each other and coax the best possible performances from one another (check out “Nevada, California” for an example – it's a great song, but would be exponentially less so were both singers not present), all for each song's benefit. In that way, The Jayhawks offer listeners a solid, unified front where everyone in the band is focused on the same goal. There are no heroes on Hollywood Town Hall, just a band determined to show audiences what they have to offer, together.

Such a powerful showing should have made The Jayhawks' name right away, but it took a little longer than one would typically expect, in part because the world was still fascinated by all things grunge. The album wasn't a spectacular showing on the charts, but it did chart and began the band's slow but consistent climb; as tastes did eventually shift, The Jayhawks did eventually get their due – even if Hollywood Town Hall only played a small role in it. Now, nineteen years later, American Recordings and Sony Music have reissued a deluxe edition of the album to show everyone what they missed – complete with some bonus tracks to entice those wise fans that jumped aboard with the band at the beginning.

Culled from a demo-only sampler called Scrapple, the B-side margin of the European pressing of the “Waiting For The Sun” single and pulled from the depths of the vaults, it does need to be said that it's understandable why the five bonus tracks appended to the close of Hollywood Town Hall were left off – they aren't bad, but the country streaks running through the are just too pronounced; they'd have upset the balance struck on the original album. While not bad songs, “Warm River” and “Leave No Cold” are just too rootsy for their own good and, while they do show still another side of The Jayhawks, it's not necessarily a side that would have helped Hollywood Town Hall. Here, after the myths have been made, the bonus tracks make for a nice last dessert on an album that only got half the shake it deserved and that will get long-time fans interested as new ones are captivated by the album itself.



The Hollywood Town Hall reissue is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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