The Jayhawks are one of those classic cases of coulda' been, woulda' been, and shoulda' been.
Based out of Minneapolis, and around the vocal and songwriting team of Mark Olson and Gary Louris, Jayhawks albums like Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass not only sold respectably well, but also earned them near universal critical raves from the nineties forward. They just were never quite able to grab the big, brass ring.
Other than that, the Jayhawks were a band that seemed to have nearly everything else going for them. They wrote picture perfect, more often than not quite-hooky songs that cradled a fine line between pop songcraft and country twang. The songs got modest airplay — mainly on Americana and adult-alternative stations — and the concerts, held mainly in theatre-sized venues, nearly always sold out.
When Mark Olson eventually left to follow his wife Victoria Williams in making a more folk-oriented noise, Louris carried on with the Jayhawks name for a few more years on albums like Smile and Rainy Day Music, before finally calling it a day. The thing is, when you look back on all of the great music the Jayhawks made — on songs like "Settled Down Like Rain," "I'd Run Away," "Blue," "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" and the rest — it's just amazing these guys weren't a lot bigger than they were.
Hopefully Music from The North Country, an ambitious new career retrospective on the Jayhawks will change that. Overseen by Gary Louris, this 2 CD/1 DVD set was obviously assembled with loving care. You'd also be surprised at how many of these songs you might recognize, even if you don't necessarily know the Jayhawks by name.
Disc one plays like the proverbial greatest hits set by a band that never really had any. It opens with "Two Angels" and "Aint No End," two tracks from Blue Earth, the Jayhawks lone 1989 album for indie label Twin Tone. "Aint No End" in particular still sounds like the opening shot by a band destined for future greatness. Olson and Louris trade off on some of the sweetest harmonies this side of the Flying Burrito Brothers as the guitars crackle with all the warmth of a bristling campfire.
Four tracks from Hollywood Town Hall, the Jayhawks critically acclaimed 1992 debut for Rick Rubin's American Recordings follow, including the modest hits "Waiting For The Sun" and "Settled Down Like Rain." The latter focuses on the same mix of twangy guitars and gorgeous harmonies, while the former is buttressed by carnival-like keyboards that summon the spirit of sixties-era Dylan — an expansion of the Jayhawks sound that would continue for several more albums.
1995's Tomorrow The Green Grass — an album many will tell you was the Jayhawks' best — is wisely also represented by no less than four tracks. These include "I'd Run Away," which is one of those Jayhawks songs that should have been huge, with it's great piano-anchored hook, and "Blue," which featured some of the band's most wistful harmonizing yet. These two albums — the last to feature the combination of Olson and Louris — arguably represent the Jayhawks at their creative peak.
The albums recorded following Olson's departure also featured their fair share of gems, though, many of which are included on this set. These include "Big Star," a great little rock and roll tune that, depending on who you talk to, is either Louris' tribute to the band of the same name, or a wry commentary on the lack of success of his own. From the Smile album you get another of those near hits in "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," as well as the title track. From the Rainy Day Music album, "Save It For A Rainy Day" might be recognized by some from the television commercials which used the song.
The second disc features outtakes and rarities from the Jayhawks' career, including tracks from their mythical first recording, the "Bunkhouse Album." Demos and outtake versions include "Stone Cold Mess," an outtake from the Hollywood Town Hall sessions, as well as other rare B-sides, radio sessions, and several raw demo recordings recorded at the Jayhawks' rehearsal space.
The DVD also yields some real gold for fans. There are the original music videos for "Settled Down Like Rain," "Take Me With You (When You Go)," "Blue," "Big Star," and "Save It For A Rainy Day." Also included is some great live footage from a 1993 Hollywood Town Hall era concert in Chicago, including live versions of "Settled Down Like Rain," "Reason To Believe," and "Take Me With You (When You Go)."
Jayhawks fans whose hopes were raised by the Louris and Olson reunion album Ready For The Flood earlier this year will be interested to know that the complete band has signed on for a short series of European dates, as well as a hometown reunion show this Friday in Minneapolis.
Whether or not this translates into something more long-term or not, Music from The North Country – The Jayhawks Anthology is a great career retrospective that nicely sums up a band who coulda' been, woulda' been, and shoulda' been.
In addition to the deluxe edition, disc one is also available as a stand-alone hits compilation.