Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Jayhawks - Music From The North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology
Sony Music

Not before time comes this harbinger of the alt.country pioneers declaration to stumble down the remastering and rumoured reformation campaign trail. Originally centred on the writing partnership of Mark Olson and Gary Louris they sauntered out of mid-eighties Minneapolis, issuing a quartet of releases including the hallowed Hollywood Town Hall and fabled Tomorrow The Green Grass before the twain split under the strain like the twin cities of their hometown. The earlier material - take the gently disembodied loping opener Two Angels or Waiting For The Sun - shows their clear passion for Gram Parsons and Crazy Horse though the sheer songcraft easily sets them several saddles apart from mere Americana five-minuters, as does the askance, sardonic worldview shared by fellow Minneapolis alumnus Paul Westerberg. The seemingly simplistic songs being shrugged off are in reality unassuming masterclasses and defining examples of autumnal, starkly sun-dappled laments and lonesome, cloudy lullabies. Concise, eloquent, evocative and sent still further astray from the middling majority by virtue of the unique, quite possibly divinely ordained, celestial harmonies of the two songwriters' tremulous, keening drawls. Utterly entrancing on the more (often than not) subdued mournful moments, positively ecstatic on the less present but more madly exuberant elegies like the deliriously sublime Miss William's Guitar - a hugely endearing off-kilter love-ode to Olson's future spouse Victoria Williams - leaving the largely allusory and veiled lyrics to subtly incise meanings into your subconscious, these songs can truly tear tears from the most arid trails without notice.
Post-split Louris charted an inconsistent course out of their earlier country by-ways into power-pop and straight-ahead West Coast American rock territory of the sort hinted at and, it appeared, perfected on 1995's Tomorrow The Green Grass. Pleasingly, though, Louris alone rarely strays into overly lush, stagnant and self-satisfied straits that suggests nor strife-fuelled self-despair. That they floundered somewhat with the double-blow of losing Olson and presumable label dictates is readily discernible, as over-long songs and cluttered production stifled either by guitar or orchestral sludge at times attest. Whether desperation through loss of direction or experimentation gone slightly too far there could be a case made that at least some of these elements were bitterly self-aware statements mocking himself, the industry and individuals, especially with a cache of stronger songs. Not that they were now entirely bereft of significant treasures, however. The ironic and acerbic stampede of Big Star resides resplendently amid the dysfunctional Sound Of Lies and Smile lathers you in the gloriously beguiling yet slightly tart as ever slice of sunny seventies lotion I'm Gonna Make You Love Me, brimful of the sort of stupified optimism even Mike Scott or Julian Cope would sneer cynically at, while Rainy Day Music harked back to the by now lightly browned green grass outside an old town hall, still as ever a display of Louris' distinctive melodic sense.
With the second rarities disc here hopefully just hinting at the stockpile Louris has at his disposal to plunder and disperse amongst further two-disc reissues (alternate Two Angels titled Old Woman From Red Clay, the dour-garbed doppelganger of I'm Gonna Make You Love Me in the guise of Someone Will and Stone Cold Mess with lyrics that turned up on Smile just a trio of prizes for fans of such artefacts) this is one band that were a scarcity in their own time and would be a rare thing once again in being worthy of a reunion show or two. For now, this serves supremely thankyou as both a perfect introduction to a mighty and arguably mite under-appreciated musical chapter aswell as a tantalising appetiser for what's to come on any repackaged classics. Simply, elegantly astounding.
Stu Gibson
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