Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Snow - The Jayhawks

Hey People,

Well, I'm in Nashville, where we've had a bunch of snow and 'flurries' lately. In fact, it was 'flurrying' today, to use the term as a verb, which I'm not sure is technically possible. 'Flurries' are a meteorological term denoting patches of light snow, and I've never heard that such a thing existed until about a week ago. That's what you get for being brought up in country Queensland, which could be famous for its lack of snow. Well, unless you're from Stanthorpe, where it does snow occasionally, I'm told. I never saw it though, which was my parent's fault really, neglecting to take me down there and enrich my childhood (just kidding Mum, you're ok). Instead in Warwick we had frequent below-zero temperatures (that's centigrade, folks) that could freeze off the parts of a Monkey he would consider quite valuable, and ice over our horses' water trough (literally). But it would never snow. Come to think of it, I didn't actually see snow until I was 21, and taking an overseas jaunt to Europe. I first sighted this magical by-product of the cold weather in Switzerland, on the top of a mountain just above the village of Leysin, which is above Lake Geneva (if that means anything to you). It was very pretty, and kind of an amazing place to get your first up close experience of snow.

Anyway, seeing as how I'm harping on about snow, I'm going to draw a rather tenuous link between it and the next band I'm going to talk about in my ongoing series of...(drum roll)...

Bands or Artists You Should Know But Have Probably Never Heard Of.

Yeah, I know, I need to work on the title. I'll come up with something catchy eventually.

Anyway, the band that I'm about to talk of come from one of the coldest places in the United States, and always gets a lot of the white icy stuff come wintertime. I'm talking about the northern state of Minnesota, and the so called 'twin cities' of Minneapolis and St Paul. This is an area that has been the birthing ground for a number of great bands, but today I'm going to focus on just one, which is The Jayhawks.

The heart and soul of the Jayhawks is the fantastic pop songwriting partnership of Gary Louris and Mark Olson, though this wasn't always the way it was from the beginning. When the band formed in 1985 in Minneapolis with Stan Perlman on bass, Norm Rogers on drums and Louris and Olson on vocals and guitars, most of the songs were written by Olson. The band's first release was self-titled and put out by small independent label Bunkhouse records (a label started by the band's first manager Charlie Pine) in 1986, with Olson dominating the songwriting duties. The album didn't garner any interest from major labels however, so the band went right back to work recording new demos and performing as often as their day jobs would allow. During this time, Louris (despite a brief respite from the band to to being injured in a car accident) gradually started to contribute more songs to the proceedings, and the pair collaborated more frequently on new material.

In 1989 these collected demos from the past three years were collated, ironed out and molded into the album 'Blue Earth'. This was released on Minneapolis label Twin-Tone and the band set about touring the U.S. in order to promote it. After a couple of years and a few lineup changes (by now, Rogers had been replaced by Thad Spencer on drums, and after the tour Spencer was in turn replaced by Ken Callahan) the legend goes that in 1991 Dave Ayers, the president of Twin Tone records was on the phone to George Drakoulias from Def American records, while 'Blue Earth' was playing in the background. Drakoulias was curious about the music in the background, and so Ayers told him all about the band, which led to the eventual signing of the Jayhawks to their first major label deal with Def American later that year.

In 1992, the band had their first major label American release, 'Hollywood Town Hall', produced by George Drakoulias, which was a big critical success and gained quite a bit of airplay. The band continued touring (with new member Karen Grotberg on keyboards and vocals) and in the process found themselves gaining a solid core fanbase, but wider success still eluded them, and the album failed to break into the charts, peaking at #192, although the single 'Waiting for the Sun' reached #20 on the Billboard charts. The album 'Hollywood town Hall' is considered to be a fan favourite, but it was their next record, released in 1995, that introduced me to them.

'Tomorrow the Green Grass' is my favourite Jayhawks record. It was again produced by George Drakoulias, and for me is the moment when the chemistry between Olson and Louris reached its peak, in regard to both songwriting and vocal harmony. The album doesn't have a bad song on it, and for me was immediately reminiscent of another of my favourite bands (and subject of another chapter in the series), The Flying Burrito Brothers. The harmonies between Olson and Lourisstrongly evoke the harmony blend of the Burrito Bros.' Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, none more so on the slower country numbers like 'Two Hearts'. It's a truly great record, and without a doubt one of the best albums of the decade. The album did chart, but due to its expensive production failed to sell as expected, and did not build on the success of their last record. The band toured the record to support it, and found their fanbase and profile growing, but breakthrough mainstream commercial success still eluded them.

Disillusioned with the music industry, Olson unexpectedly left the band in late 1995 once touring had finished. In his words: "We were cooking on all cylinders, and playing shows, and it seemed like before we knew it, the touring was done. I was a little shocked at that, I was sort of thinking like we were going to get through this first round, and then we were going to go for it on our own and make it happen. But that just didn't seem like it was on the cards; we were already having a meeting about the next record. I blew a fuse inside for some of the things that were basically not that big of a deal, so I left the band."

Olson's departure left a big hole in the group, and after a short break where the remaining members (Callahan had been replaced on the drums by Tim O'Reagan in 1995) tried to work out what to do next, they decided to keep going with touring and making records, with Louris as leader and main songwriter in the band. The band released three more albums; 'Sound of Lies' (1997), Smile (2000) and Rainy Day Music (2003), which are all very good records with Louris coming into his own as a bandleader and songwriter.

In 2009, a Jayhawks anthology was released titled 'Music from the North Country', and provides a good retrospective covering all periods and stages of the band's existence. The Jayhawks were a seminal and extremely influential band for just about every serious musician in the 1990's that didn't pick up a guitar just because they saw Kurt Cobain do it. For those who dug deeper and loved classic pop harmonies and melodies, the Jayhawks were a one-stop shop, whose classic records still sound great today. I recommend you start with 'Tomorrow the Green Grass', then 'Hollywood Town Hall', and after that you'll be a fan for life.

Album Discography

The Jayhawks (1986)
Blue Earth (1989)
Hollywood Town Hall (1993)
Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)
Sound of Lies (1997)
Smile (2000)
Rainy Day Music (2003)
Music from the North Country (2009)

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