Numerous young American bands have attempted to recapture the soulful spirit of country-rock as pioneered by Gram Parsons, but few have come as close to getting it right as the Jayhawks. At their best, the Minneapolis quartet’s heartfelt roots-rock is intimate yet epic, a sound built around the earth-and-sky interplay of singer/guitarists Mark Olson and Gary Louris and the band’s balance of stately sensitivity and electric kick. Where similarly inclined combos have used country-rock as little more than a stylistic affectation, the Jayhawks capture Parsons’ sense of fatalistic moralism, remaining scrupulously faithful to their musical sources yet never seeming contrived — despite the fact that original frontman Olson’s Midwestern drawl is often a dead ringer for GP’s, and his songs cover similar emotional ground.
The Jayhawks is an auspicious debut; the band stakes out its derivative style with so much spirit that it almost sounds original. The playing (particularly by Louris) is clean and economical; the material is largely uptempo and lighthearted. The regretful “The Liquor Store Came First” gives a hint of the increased emotional depth to come.
Though it’s largely a piecemeal assemblage of tracks recorded as demos by a then-unstable lineup, Blue Earth is a mature, cohesive work that certifies the Jayhawks’ significance. Olson’s material is more skillful and streamlined than before, and the band plays with a thoughtful restraint that intensifies the emotional gravity of such numbers as “Two Angels” and “Commonplace Streets,” and the humor of “Red Firecracker” and “Dead End Angel.”
Hollywood Town Hall, the Jayhawks’ major-label bow (produced by George Drakoulias) so consistently emphasizes the quartet’s bittersweet mid-tempo material that it resembles a concept album. Despite—or because of— this relatively narrow view, the record attains a rough- hewn, holistic state of grace that is as impressive as any of the band’s myriad influences. The hook-inclined Louris is considerably more prominent here, co-writing all of the songs with Olson and singing lead or co-lead on many of them, including “Waiting for the Sun” and “Settled Down Like Rain.” Olson’s somewhat darker vision and rougher-hewn voice don’t really make a major impression until the album’s final three numbers: “Wichita,” “Nevada, California” and “Martin’s Song” (which, like “Two Angels,” was re-recorded from Blue Earth). Though Hollywood Town Hall‘s conceptual focus is a bit too limited to really do the band justice, it’s hard to argue with an album this beautifully written, played and sung.
In contrast, Tomorrow the Green Grass—which uses a session drummer (ex-Lone Justice man Don Heffington) and adds keyboardist Karen Grotberg to the longstanding core of Olson, Louris and bassist Marc Perlman—broadens its predecessor’s stylistic base but generally lacks its emotional cohesion. There’s much to admire and enjoy here, from high-lonesome balladry (“Blue”) to romantic pop (“I’d Run Away”) to fatalistic musings (“See Him on the Street”)— even a sunny ode to Olson’s wife, Victoria Williams (“Miss Williams’ Guitar”). As its title suggests, Tomorrow the Green Grass ultimately seems like a transitional effort. Olson quit in late 1995 and began a solo career. The other Jayhawks have pressed on.