Music From the North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology (Deluxe Edition)
By David Chiu
The Jayhawks emerged from the same Minneapolis alt-country music scene that birthed Uncle Tupelo, and then later Son Volt and Wilco. And like those bands, their sound doesn’t come across as conventional country music because it incorporates folk, rock and roll and pop. Fronted by Gary Louris and, for a time Mark Olson, the Jayhawks crafted roots rock that never garnered them the same audience their peers got. Or, at least, the audience was never as big.
In the wake of the band’s recent reunion comes this best-of package spanning their entire output. It begins with a couple of very rootsy tracks from their second indie album, 1989’s Blue Earth: “Ain’t No End” and “Two Angels.” Following that record was their American Recordings debut, the superb Hollywood Town Hall (1992). That record contains “Waiting for the Sun” and “Martin’s Song,” both of which are on this release.
Then came another great Jayhawks album, Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995), which yielded the minor hit “Blue.” Nearly all of the songs from that record could’ve have been on Music From The North Country, which cherry picks the ebullient “I’d Run Away,” the lovely ballad “Over My Shoulder,” and a song referencing Olson’s then-wife, singer Victoria Williams, “Miss Williams’ Guitar.”
Just as the band was making some headway with Tomorrow The Green Grass, Olson departed from the band, leaving Louris the group’s main singer and songwriter. He and the other Jayhawks carried on with perhaps their most underrated effort Sound of Lies (1997). Its songs “Trouble,” “The Man Who Loved Life” and the cheeky and cynical rocker “Big Star” also appear on this collection. (Unfortunately other good songs from that album such as “Think About It” and “Dying on the Vine” aren’t part of the anthology).
But despite personnel changes and minor fame, the Jayhawks kept at it. For their 2000 release, Smile, the band aimed to expand their sound beyond simple folk rock, perhaps for something more commercial. Part of that came from enlisting producer Bob Ezrin, best known for his work with stadium rock acts Kiss and Pink Floyd. The result was pop-oriented tracks like “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and the lush title tune. While they’re very catchy and likeable, they also sound a bit too glossy- the band clearly strayed from the their roots.
Fortunately, the Jayhawks rebounded three years later with what would turn out to be their swansong, Rainy Day Music. Probably a reaction to the Smile album, the tunes sounded very back-to-basics, evidenced by songs “Save It For a Rainy Day,” “Tailspin,” and “Angelyne.”
True fans of the Jayhawks will likely be better served by purchasing the deluxe edition of this anthology, which contains an extra disc of music and a DVD. For those who are hearing the band for the first time, and like what they hear, they should pick up some studio albums—most definitely Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass. Not much to ask for a band that was one of the true greats of the alt-country genre.