Rainy Day Music
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Reviewed by David Medsker
When Jayhawks co-founder Mark Olson left the band in 1995, many (this writer included) heard the death knell for one of the most revered and influential bands of the 1990s. And sure enough, their first step out of the gate with Gary Louris solely at the helm, Sound of Lies, was a mess. Dark, aimless and weary, Sound of Lies was as far from a typical Jayhawks album as you can get. The Bob Ezrin-produced Smile, released in 2000, had its own share of turmoil. Out was keyboardist Karen Grotberg (had a baby), and in was Jen Gunderman. The album was considerably better than its predecessor, but longtime fans were turned off by the more pop oriented sound (sampling, drum machines) that the band employed. In 2001, Gunderman and side guitarist Kraig Johnson left the band, bringing the 'Hawks down to a trio.
Call it addition by subtraction. Rainy Day Music is the closest to a vintage Jayhawks record since 1995's majestic Tomorrow the Green Grass. Soaring harmonies, monstrous hooks, and more major keys than the band employed on the last two albums combined. It's a stunning return to form.
Reducing the band to a trio has clearly given the Jayhawks immense freedom to add to their sound if they choose to. Smile was a good record, but also a very busy one. The songs on Rainy Day Music, on the other hand, are neither busy nor bare. Rather, they're exquisitely dressed, with a banjo line here and a chamberlain there, but nothing that sounds as if it's only there to give a band member something to do. Leadoff track "Stumbling Through the Dark," co-written by Louis with Matthew Sweet, illustrates the new/old sound better than anything. Gorgeous and delicate, the song is like a meld of the Jayhawks' "Two Hearts" and Sweet's "Time Capsule." It's actually so nice, they played it twice, adding a reprise at the album's close.
"Tailspin" is, as TNT would say, one of the new classics (mark my words, this will be the second single from the album), with some heavenly vocals from Sweet and Chris Stills that nearly erases from memory the fact that the Jayhawks previously had women singing backup. (It also features banjo from Eagles escapee Bernie Leadon, of all people.) Drummer Tim O'Reagan gets in on the action as well, penning "Don't Let the World Get in Your Way," a moper ballad with a surprisingly uplifting message. "Madman" bears more than a trace of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, an influence that pops up more than once.
But Louris' heart, whether he admits it or not, is in pop, which is why songs like "Eyes of Sarahjane" seem so effortless, even though it's far from simple. It also enables Louris to eviscerate someone lyrically and have them tap dancing while he's doing it; witness "Come to the River," where he tells a former lover, "The wells you drank from all ran dry/Now you are standing all alone," but does so with an unabashed sing-along melody. "I hope this letter finds you well/You're such a nasty little girl," he purrs later. Killing her softly, indeed.
And yet there is something missing that wasn't quite as obvious on Lies or Smile. For the first time since he left the band, I miss Mark Olson. Louris is 10 times the singer that Olsen ever was, which made Olsen's departure much easier to take than losing the guy who sang "I'd Run Away," arguably the best Jayhawks song ever. But songs like "Angelyne" and "Will I See You in Heaven" are practically screaming for Olsen to take the lower harmony. His absence is, finally, noticeable.
Rainy Day Music was without question a make-or-break record for the Jayhawks. When life keeps handing you lemons, eventually you're going to tire of making lemonade and want to start whipping lemons at people. Louris, to his credit, is either the most optimistic person in the world or the most stubborn, because we certainly didn't expect or deserve a record as rewarding as Rainy Day Music at this point in the Jayhawks' career. But thank heaven for small miracles.