Fourteen years after Mark Olson departed the Jayhawks to strum alongside Ms. Williams' Guitar, the singer/songwriter has reunited with his fellow Minnesotan Gary Louris for a new set of largely acoustic alt-country. Ready for the Flood (New West Records) contains the twosome's appealing blend of raggedy Louvin Bros.-style harmonies and hometown angst.
If, at times, the results sound a little too muted in the manner of "grown-up" Nick Lowe ("Kick the Wood" and "My Gospel Song for You" even have the same churchy organ backing that the onetime Jesus of Cool currently overuses), there's still plenty here for old Jayhawks fans to admire.
Those 'hawks loyalists who prefer the group when Louris started steering the band toward a poppier direction may find this two man reunion a little too dour for their tastes, though the twosome do find the space on Flood for some jauntier tracks.
"Chamberlain SD" is the disc's big rocker, and it's a damn fine one: a sinister description of dragging the Missouri River that makes its chorus exhortation — "Chamberlain wants you" — sound like an insistent invitation to Hell. "Bloody Hands" is a mandolin-sweetened jeremiad capped by a hooky cautionary refrain ("What the mind forgets, the soul retains"), while "Doves and Stones" makes particularly strong use of Louris' Wilbury-esque inclinations. It's arguably the closest Flood comes to the later Jayhawks sound.
More typically, though, the duo works a slower, folksy tempo on their moody tales of loss and cruelly irreligious times. At their best, such as on the quietly urgent "When the Wind Comes Up" or the wistfully positive "Life's Warm Sheets," these two sons of the Midwest temper their sermonizing proclivities with neatly detailed lyrics, strongly harmonic melodies and thoughtful strumming. At their weakest (as on this release's over-serious spoken word conclusion "The Trap's Been Set"), Olson & Louris get you missing the band who once thought it was a cool idea to include Grand Funk Railroad's "Bad Time" on a disc.
Still, Flood's strong tracks outnumber its snoozers. "Where are the voices that cheer your days?" the two ask in their chorus to "Wood." Right on this disc, guys . . .