Sharps & Flats

The Jayhawks were the Next Big Thing that never was. The excellent "Smile" offers the band one last chance.

By Don McLeese

Published June 14, 2000 7:01PM (EDT)

Imagine a parallel universe of rock revisionism, one in which the Beach Boys never progressed beyond the sandbox of surfboards and hot rods, while Buffalo Springfield evolved into the sonic conceptualists of "Pet Sounds." Now blow away the lint of nostalgia from such a conjured unlikelihood, and you'll have a sense of what an ear-opening surprise is the Jayhawks' "Smile."

Yeah, the Jayhawks -- Midwestern journeymen, bearers of the tattered alt-country standard, the band whose promise in the early '90s dimmed from Next Big Thing to Thing That Never Was. By all rights, this is a band that should have quit five years ago, when frontman and founder Mark Olson renounced corporate rock for family values, prefering to make homespun music with his bride Victoria Williams (as the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers) instead of continuing to grasp for the brass ring that seemed perpetually beyond the Jayhawks' reach.

Into the breach stepped guitarist Gary Louris, perennially the Minneapolis band's most valuable player, yet one whose virtuosity seemed best suited to furthering the creative impulses of others (in support of Joe Henry and, later, Kelly Willis, in addition to his crucial collaborations with Olson) rather than asserting his own. The release of "Sound of Lies" (1997) earned Louris credit for holding the band together, yet the results were mixed at best, with the new Jayhawks so determined to avoid comparisons with the old that they sounded more like the cornfield ELO. It seemed that Golden Smog (Louris' side project with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and other kindred spirits) had a brighter future than the Jayhawks.

By contrast, "Smile" has the urgency of a band risking everything on one final roll of the dice, recognizing that if such a radical attempt at renewal doesn't work, the game is finished. There's no holding back here, nothing saved for next time out. Whether one hears the album as late-blooming brilliance or last-gasp desperation, it shows no signs of the flannel-shirt complacency that finds so much of the music currently branded as "Americana" recycling the same cowflop.

Instead, soundscapes such as "Somewhere in Ohio" and "(In My) Wildest Dreams" find the band pushing its creative interplay to extremes, as waves of harmonies, washes of fuzztone psychedelia, tinges of chamber orchestration and loops of rhythm programming reinforce the album's shimmering spirit of musical uplift. From the title song's album-opening "Wake Up" call through the tune's all-but-subliminal warning that "the sky is falling down," the music opens its heart and lays bare its ambition, paying the sort of attention to detail that gives each song an aural imprint.

Serving as unlikely co-conspirator is Bob Ezrin, the veteran producer for whom too much is never enough. Though his work on Lou Reed's "Berlin," Alice Cooper's "Welcome to My Nightmare" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall" showed a heavy hand, here his arrangements enhance rather than overwhelm the 'Hawks' lighter melodic touch.

With "Smile" (the title that Brian Wilson initially intended for the Beach Boys' follow-up to "Pet Sounds"), the band risks alienating its core constituency in the hopes of attracting a broader audience. Yet instead of a commercial compromise, the album sounds more like a creative liberation, a lifeline renewed by a band that resists playing out the string.

Don McLeese

Don McLeese is a veteran music critic and cultural journalist and a journalism professor at the University of Iowa.


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