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Music Review: The Jayhawks – The Jayhawks (a.k.a. The Bunkhouse Album)

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The Jayhawks are one of those bands that people only seem to have figured out later.

Much like the Raspberries and Big Star (who the Jayhawks, none too coincidentally, paid tribute to in a song of the same name), later paved the way for the power-pop of bands like Cheap Trick, the Jayhawks were instrumental in the development of the alt-country genre which has long since been popularized by the likes of Wilco.

Sometimes it sucks to be pioneers though.

Just ask the Ramones — who, if most of them were even still alive today, would love to be cashing Green Day's royalty checks, I'm sure. The bottom line is that while the Jayhawks were still around, they more or less fell into the same sort of commercial netherworld as Big Star did.

To put it in simple terms, the Jayhawks were a "critics' band." While they did enjoy a modest degree of commercial success, the fact is that they should have been Eagles huge.

Anchored by the gorgeous Everly Brothers-like harmonies of principal songwriters Mark Olson and Gary Louris, the Jayhawks didn't just wear their primary influences like Gram Parsons and Neil Young proudly on their sleeves — they also brought it into the future.

On albums like their twin '90s masterpieces Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass, the Jayhawks melded jangly, Byrds-like guitars, Flying Burrito Brothers country twang, and the sort of simple yet descriptive songwriting worthy of Robbie Robertson's most memorable work with the Band, to create masterful pictures of Americana worthy of Norman Rockwell.

Like I said, the Jayhawks should have been Eagles huge. Alas, it was  not meant to be.

Long before the band found a modest but devoted following first on the indie label Twin/Tone, and later on Rick Rubin's Def American Recordings, the Jayhawks made a little record in 1986 that has long since attained mythical status amongst their fans.

The Bunkhouse Album, as it has since come to be known, was funded completely by the band and then manager Charlie Pine. Two thousand copies of the album were pressed on makeshift label Bunkhouse Records (hence the title), before the album disappeared into both obscurity and legend.

Until now, anyway.

When last year's excellent Jayhawks Anthology resurrected Bunkhouse tracks like "Falling Star," it was probably inevitable that the album itself would once again see the light of day — and here it is. Newly reissued by the folks at Lost Highway, The Bunkhouse Album reveals the Jayhawks to be a diamond in the rough.

The 14 tracks on this album certainly don't have the same sort of gorgeous studio sheen as a masterpiece like Hollywood Town Hall does. But the recording is nonetheless remarkably bright and crisp sounding. It also spotlights the Jayhawks playing things much closer to the vest of their country roots. The Bunkhouse Album is a lot more country than it is anything resembling "alt." Think more Burritos, and less Band here.

The album kicks off with "Falling Star" (which also showed up on the Jayhawks Anthology last year). Here, the gorgeous Everly Brothers-inspired harmonies of Olson and Louris are matched note for note by Louris' crazy guitar picking, and some very sweet pedal steel by Cal Hand, in what amounts to a modern country shuffle. The duo also does such a number channeling the harmonies of the Everly Brothers here it's downright spooky.

These same beautiful harmonies show up again on "Let The Last Night Be The Longest (Lonesome Memory)," although this time it's within the context of a sped-up country two-step that recalls Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire," only played in something like double time.

Lyrically, the Jayhawks embrace saints and sinners alike in songs like "The Liquor Store Came First" (what honest to goodness country album is complete without a drinking song?), and the gospel-tinged "King of Kings" where country twang meets holy roller rapture in the chorus "people get ready, to meet the King of Kings."

The pop sensibilities which would manifest themselves more fully on later albums like Hollywood Town Hall are also in full evidence here though, most notably on "Let the Critics Wonder." Here, Louris conjures the beautiful guitar jangling of the Byrds' Roger McGuinn, as Olson more or less bites the hand that would later feed him in lines like "don't the critics know what it's all about?"

More than anything, The Bunkhouse Album is an inside glimpse into the pure countrified roots of the Minneapolis-based band that would later come to define the modern alt-country genre as we know it today, on such pastoral masterpieces as Tomorrow The Green Grass.

Last I heard, there were some rumblings of a Jayhawks reunion. One can only hope. No, they were never quite Eagles huge. But they damn well should have been.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.