CD Review of Music from the North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology by The Jayhawks
The Jayhawks: Music from the North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology
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The Jayhawks:
Music from the North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology

Reviewed by David Medsker


ritics and fans alike are fond of using the word ‘criminal’ when it comes to their favorite band’s lack of mainstream success, but you’d be hard pressed to find a band with as much good will and bad luck as the Jayhawks. They scored their record deal through the only-in-the-movies coincidence of producer and A&R rep George Drakoulias hearing their demos while on hold with Twin/Tone Records (that’s good). Then founder and co-leader Mark Olson left the band at the height of their popularity in order to spend time with then-wife Victoria Williams, who had recently been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (that’s bad). Gary Louris took over full-time singing and principal songwriting duties and steered the band through three more albums, working with such noted producers as Bob Ezrin and Ethan Johns. And the six people who heard those albums loved them.

Even worse was the fact that the musical climate was Jayhawks-friendly on a number of occasions. Hollywood Town Hall (1992) was released at a time when the Black Crowes were riding high, and with both bands using Drakoulias as a producer – not to mention Hollywood sporting a harder, more feedback-tinged sound than their previous work – it seemed logical that the Crowes’ popularity would carry over to the Jayhawks. A few years later, the band released their watershed Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995) at the height of Hootiemania, when bands like Blues Traveler and Toad the Wet Sprocket gladly dined on Darius Rucker’s sloppy seconds. The Jayhawks, however, were unable to convert either of those breaks into cold hard cash. Their streak of bad luck so fascinated Entertainment Weekly that the magazine did a feature on the band. The most jaw-dropping moment was when they reveal that the band’s crew makes more money than they do.


After quietly disbanding the Jayhawks in 2005, Louris buried the hatchet with Olson last year and the two made the acoustic Ready for the Flood (deliberately billed as Olson and Louris and not the Jayhawks). The two did a string of concert dates, which opened the door for the Green Grass-era lineup to reunite for their first shows together in 14 years. And would you look at that: hot on the heels of that news comes Music from the North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology, which is the most thoughtfully assembled compilation we’ve seen in ages. Every album is well represented, and they even left off some of the band’s singles in order to focus on lesser known but arguably stronger tracks.

The fascinating thing about the Jayhawks’ work is that there is a signature style to the songwriting that flows from album to album, even after Olson left the band, yet each album has its own sound. Blue Earth is crunchy, Hollywood Town Hall is the rock album, Green Grass is a bigger version of Blue Earth, Sound of Lies is experimental pop, etc. If they lost anything after Olson’s departure, it was their folk element, but Louris made up for it with a balls-out exploration of the pop landscape, which was evident as early as "Waiting for the Sun" and "Settled Down Like Rain," both included here. He waved his pop flag even higher on the soaring "I’d Run Away," but it wasn’t until Olson’s departure that he was able to let it all hang out on songs like "Big Star" and "Tailspin."

In fact, at the risk of alienating the band’s staunch supporters (you will find few who love a band as passionately as the ones that love the Jayhawks, so this could get dicey), we would argue that had Louris been the one to leave the band after Green Grass instead of Olson, not only would this collection not be nearly as essential, it may not even exist. Olson’s reach as a songwriter simply isn’t that broad, not compared to what Louris was able to accomplish without him. Think of Olson and Louris as the alt-country equivalent of Tim and Neil Finn, respectively. Each has its charms, but there is a reason why Louris and Neil were more successful than Olson and Tim.

Collections like this are usually stilted towards the band’s most successful albums – see Rush’s Retrospective 3 for an example – but thankfully Music from the North Country resists that urge. Hollywood Town Hall, Green Grass and Rainy Day Music are represented by four songs, while Sound of Lies and Smile contribute three songs. (Blue Earth is the only shortchanged album, with two songs.) Even better, they skipped over Sound of Lies’ fine but forgettable lead single "Think About It" in order to include the killer ballad "Trouble," and they even had the guts to forsake Hollywood Town Hall’s "Take Me with You (When You Go)" and "Wichita" in favor of "Clouds" and "Martin’s Song." While that is not the move we would have made in the case of the latter two songs, we applaud the decision to include the songs they considered the best, regardless of which songs were sent to radio. They even left off the band’s superb cover of Grand Funk’s "Bad Time." That is some monster will power on display, right there; covers are usually record label catnip for these sorts of things.

Olson and Louris are maintaining a ‘we’ll see what happens’ approach to the idea of another Jayhawks album, but even if that doesn’t happen – though if we’re being honest, we really, really hope that it does – the band’s legacy is magnificently preserved in Music from the North Country. Brilliant stuff, across the board.

Deluxe Edition Features
Get ready to pony up for this one, Jayhawks fans, because you do not want to miss what is included here. There is a second disc of B-sides and assorted rare tracks, including an early version of "Two Angels" called "Old Woman from Red Clay," and a song called "Stone Cold Mess" that was later reworked into "A Break in the Clouds" for the Smile album. (Our personal favorite is the rockin’ "Get the Load Out.") There is also a DVD that includes all of the band’s videos, plus two short films recorded for the releases of Hollywood Town Hall and Sound of Lies. This set is a must-have for fans of the band, even if they have all of the band’s albums.

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