CD Review of Vagabonds by Gary Louris
Recommended if you like
Jayhawks, Neil Young, Uncle Tupelo
Label
Rykodisc
Gary Louris: Vagabonds

Reviewed by David Medsker

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S
omewhere in Gary Louris’ past lies a dead kitten. It is the only conceivable explanation for why the onetime leader of Minneapolis alt-country giants the Jayhawks has never caught a break. From boneheaded comparisons to the Black Crowes to insurmountable record company debt, from the departure of co-founder Mark Olson at the band’s commercial peak to the dissolution of a revamped Jayhawks lineup over post-9/11 travel complications, karma has spent the last 20 years kicking Louris’ ass, and that doesn’t include the Spinal Tap-esque number of drummers the band has gone through. Granted, it is extremely difficult to make a living in the music business, but even fellow alt-country wanderers Wilco eventually caught a break. We can only assume that that is because there are no dead kittens in Jeff Tweedy’s past.

Still, don’t cry for Louris; the man learned a long time ago what to do with lemons, and while he has not yet had his Yankee Hotel Foxtrot close-up, he continues to work and, as far as we can tell, has not had any trouble finding a label to call home. Louris chose Rykodisc to be the home for his solo debut, Vagabonds – and don’t look now, but between the signings of Louris, Joe Jackson, Junior Senior and Del Amitri frontman Justin Currie, Ryko is putting together one hell of a roster – and from the very beginning, it is clear that Louris is not at all interested in resurrecting the Jayhawks all by himself. If Louris’ songs tend to pop, this batch would prefer to simmer to a boil. Or just simmer, as the case may be.

Gary Louris

Jayhawks records are notable for being equal parts darkness and light – for every ballad like “A Place in the Clouds,” there is a soaring pop song along the lines of “I’d Run Away” waiting in the wings – but Vagabonds has no such balance. Anyone looking for the next “Tailspin,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” or “Somewhere in Ohio,” be advised: it ain’t here. Heck, there isn’t even a minor-key rocker like “Baby, Baby, Baby” or mid-tempo pop tune like “Stumbling through the Dark” to be found. Instead, Vagabonds is the equivalent of the mellowest Jayhawks songs compiled onto a mix disc.

Fortunately for Louris, many of his best songs are the mellow ones, and that is no exception here. “Black Grass” might be the most delicate vocal Louris has ever put to tape, and “To Die a Happy Man” is simply gorgeous, though it hints at a more energetic arrangement of the song lurking underneath. The title track will appeal to fans of “What Led Me to This Town,” and credit must be given to the production by Chris Robinson (insert ironic Black Crowes punch line here). The pedal steels sing like birds, and the atmospherics sound like nothing Louris has ever done.

So what, then, to make of the lack of variety? As pretty as Vagabonds is, that sameness of vibe proves to be its undoing before it’s over. Indeed, if Louris should have called any of his records Rainy Day Music, it’s this one.

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