When Jayhawks co-founder Mark Olson took a hike late in 1995, it appeared that the band was history. Over the course of four albums, the Minneapolis group merged Olson's strum-and-twang and Gary Louris' love of radio-ready rock with their sweet vocal harmonies, and the combination inspired a revival of country rock that many groups are just starting to cash in on today. Although Jayhawks albums, especially "Tomorrow the Green Grass" (1995) and "Hollywood Town Hall" (1993), remain touchstones of the genre, the project nearly ended in bankruptcy. The band was counting on sales of "Forever" to pull them out of a million-dollar hole. When the album didn't sell, Olson decided he'd be better off touring with his wife, Victoria Williams, than racking up debt with the Jayhawks.
Louris, however, had another idea. After a year hiatus, he pulled together the remaining four members of the group and reinvented the Jayhawks. The result, "Sound of Lies," suggests that despite the old moniker, this is a new band taking a vastly different musical direction.
The genius behind this new direction is Louris' songwriting. His contributions to earlier Jayhawks efforts centered around guitar virtuoso hooks in the spirit of '70s one-hit wonders like Badfinger. (To wit, he was responsible for the cover of Grand Funk Railroad's "Bad Time" on "Forever.") But with the stage to himself, Louris' influences sound fresh and inventive, and his guitar solos fit perfectly into these pop songs instead of sounding like afterthoughts, as they did on so many Olson-penned tracks.
The new sound has more in common with twang supergroup Golden Smog than past Jayhawks efforts. Smog alum Kraig Johnson takes over for Olson on guitar throughout the album. "It's Up To You" features Louris aping Roseanne Cash's vocal phrasing from "Seven Year Itch," an inspired Smog cover. On first listen, however, some of Louris' songs can sound directionless and almost sloppy. "Think About It" layers multiple instruments that seem to be headed in opposite directions, but the song boasts a rock-solid backbone of hooks that hold the song together. Louris has said that he's been inspired by L.A. art-country outfit the Geraldine Fibbers, and on "Think About It," he wears their influence on his sleeve.
Lyrically, Louris is clearly commenting on the band's struggles. Perhaps the strongest cut on the album is an anthemlike ode to pursuing rock star glory, "Big Star," where Louris starts with "I'm flat-busted/Wild-eyed and free/I couldn't get arrested if I tried/A has-been at a mere 35." And on "The Man Who Loved Life," he laments, "This traveling band was not well received." But an even stronger influence on Louris' writing is his recent divorce -- themes of loneliness, depression and suicide appear on almost every track of the album: "You've got me down on my knees/Begging you please don't leave," he sings on "Stick in the Mud."
With a new lease on their own legacy and a cache of extraordinary new pop songs, one wonders why the band would stick with a name that conjures the Olson/Louris collaboration for most ardent Jayhawks fans. But name notwithstanding, they've managed to create a refreshing rock album that, despite the obvious influences, sounds strikingly original.