They always made it sound so easy.
At their best back in the nineties, the Jayhawks had this sweet, mellow sort of vibe about them that made it seem like they could do it in their sleep. On albums like Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, this great band blended elements of alt-country, folk, and Americana styles for a sound so familiar, you'd swear you'd been hearing the songs your entire life. Musically, the Jayhawks picked up the great lineage of artists like Dylan, The Band, and Neil Young and wore it on their sleeves like a proud, old coat.
On Vagabonds, Gary Louris' first solo album since the Jayhawks disbanded, he picks things up right where those great nineties albums left off. Not that this is strictly a Jayhawks type of alt-country picnic. Louris also expands on the sound of his great former band, to incorporate elements of blues, gospel, and even a dash of psychedelia into the mix here.
Having Black Crowes vocalist and longtime fan Chris Robinson produce the album (the two bands toured together back around the time of the Crowes' second disc The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion), wasn't a bad idea either. Robinson wisely "under-produces" here, leaving things well enough alone so that this album avoids the occasionally over-produced quality of latter Jayhawks albums like the Bob Ezrin produced Smile.
Many of the songs here also feature backing vocals by a loose amalgamation of backup singers deemed the Laurel Canyon Family Choir, including The Bangles' Susanna Hoffs, Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis, and Robinson himself. On a couple of the tracks here, the Family Choir manages to kick up quite a noise too.
On "To Die A Happy Man," Louris starts off quietly and somberly reflecting on a lover, revolving the sweet, understated melody around the repeated line "so beautiful, so beautiful." By the end of the song, it builds to a gorgeous, raucous gospel crescendo. You can clearly hear Robinson in the middle of it all, caught up in the musical rapture. Again, on "We'll Get By," the voices here get lifted high into the heavens, this time repeating the line "we'll get by, but we don't know how."
The choir likewise shows up on "Omaha Nights," backing Louris as he sings great lines like "all the days are numbered/are they slipping through my fingers/am I singing melodies meant for another singer?" and my personal favorite here, "the only way to heaven mama, is the power of devotion." Amen, brother Gary.
On "She Only Calls On Sundays" Louris sings a lament to a lover who only calls "when she's had her fill of red wine, cigarettes, and prescription pills" as a nice pedal steel guitar punctuates the broken-hearted sentiment.
Two of the most interesting tracks here are "Black Grass" and "I Wanna Get High." The former track floats along in a cloud of Beatle-ish psychedelia with Louris' studio treated vocal buttressed by swelling keyboards. The latter is a slow bluesy dirge that also happens to feature some of the best guitar sounds on the album. Here, Louris' light and airy vocal is countered by dark guitar rumblings that are somewhat reminiscent of Link Wray.
The song that probably matches classic Jayhawks most closely here is the title track. With a sound that could have come straight from Hollywood Town Hall, Louris celebrates the "Vagabonds" of the world who do things like "grow marijuana under the bridge" as a lilting pedal steel and lonesome harmonica drift through the simple, understated arrangement. As if to drive the point home, the lyrics even reference "folky singers with cold harmonicas."
The band Louris has assembled for this album also sounds great throughout. If they are playing with him on his current solo tour, I'd highly recommend checking it out.
So if you liked the Jayhawks, you should love Vagabonds. Speaking of Louris' former band, rumors are also flying that Louris is planning to reunite with his Jayhawks partner Mark Olson for a series of dates later this year — although they will not be billed as the Jayhawks.
In the meantime, this album should more than satisfy fans of that great, if sometimes under-appreciated, band.