Welcome to ‘Essentials’ a brand-new AUK series where we will be delving into the back catalogue of prominent americana artists and bringing you our estimation of either their top ten albums or their top ten tracks. Long established artists with a large back catalogue, may warrant an assessment of their albums. However, we didn’t want to exclude newer or less prolific artists, so for those we are offering ten essential tracks. This also gives the advantage of being able to include singles and EP tracks as well as album tracks. To kick the series off I’m taking a look at the albums issued by the Jayhawks and the individual works of Gary Louris and Mark Olson.
Number 10: The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers ‘Zola and the Tulip Tree’ (1999)
Both with The Creek Dippers and in his own name Mark Olson has produced a remarkably consistent output of very decent albums without perhaps ever producing a genuine classic. Nevertheless, his solo output deserves to be recognised here. With little to choose between many of them this is no easy task. ‘Zola and the Tulip Tree’ was the third Creek Dippers album and for me the pick of them. The homespun, folk-based, front porch sound of Olson’s catchy tunes are perfectly complemented by Victoria Williams’ screechy harmonies and driven on by John Convertino’s subtle percussion. Having taken the plunge, it would probably be equally applicable to make a case for any number of others.
Number 9: Gary Louris & Mark Olson ‘Ready for the Flood’ (2008)
Mark Olson left the Jayhawks in 1995 but 13 years later, during the band’s four-year hiatus he got together again with Gary Louris to record this album. The result was pretty much a Jayhawks album in all but name. Despite its more gentle and largely acoustic approach, the song structures and harmonies very much bore the hallmarks of the classic early Jayhawks albums and offer an insight into what the band might have sounded like had Olson remained. The band’s output following Olson’s departure had been less rootsy and more pop inclined. For fans of their earlier albums ‘Ready for the Flood’ was a real treat, not just for nostalgic reasons, but because it was an excellent album.
Number 8: The Jayhawks ‘The Jayhawks’ (1986)
Often referred to as ‘The Bunkhouse Tapes,’ the band’s debut, was raw and rough-hewn but the beginnings of the sound that they later went on to develop are clearly taking form. Almost forgotten and unavailable for many years after its initial release, the album was remastered and reissued by New West in 2010 to the delight of the band’s core fans. It could be argued that there are better, more developed albums that could or should have been included in this list, but what this debut release lacks in polish is more than compensated for by its freshness, energy and sheer enthusiasm. There’s also some damn fine tunes in there too.
Number 7: The Jayhawks ‘Smile’ (2000)
The second post-Olson Jayhawks album saw the band continue the journey to a more pop-orientated sound that had begun with ‘The Sound of Lies’. For some it was a step too far and the album received very mixed reviews. While Rolling Stone gave it only two stars, The Guardian gave it five. Its inclusion here will inform readers which camp this writer is in. Gorgeous melodies and super catchy tunes work their way inside you and take up residence. It was a long way from the early roots inspired albums that established The Jayhawks and cemented their place in the hearts of their followers, but that is also its strength. Louris demonstrates just what a fine and versatile writer he is on this the band’s most overtly pop album.
Number 6: Gary Louris ‘Vagabonds’ (2008)
Recorded in California, produced by Chris Robinson and featuring Jonathan Wilson on just about every instrument you care to name, not to mention guest appearances that include Susanna Hoffs and Jenny Lewis, ‘Vagabonds’ is a wide-ranging album that reflects the full spectrum of Louris’ songwriting. From roots-rock early Jayhawks style numbers to the catchy, more pop stylings of his band’s post-Olson output, it’s all there. By making such a diverse album there was always the danger that it might become bitty or fractured but this is far from the case. The album blends together perfectly into something even greater than its impressive individual parts. A great testament to Louris’ multifarious talent.
Number 5: The Jayhawks ‘Rainy Day Music’ (2003)
Produced by Ethan Johns, ‘Rainy Day Music’ The Jayhawks’ seventh studio album marked a return to their traditional roots sound following the more pop-orientated direction of their initial post-Olson albums. The influence of ex-Long Ryder Stephen McCarthy, who replaced guitarist Kraig Johnson on this album, is apparent in the overall sound. Guests Jakob Dylan and Matthew Sweet also add their own imprint to the mix. While the album pleased the band’s core following, it was also perhaps a recognition that the band were unlikely to break out from beyond that cohort and set the template for their later works. In some quarters the album was seen as a backward step, the truth is that this is simply a great Jayhawks album.
Number 4: Golden Smog ‘Weird Tales’ (1998)
Essentially a Gary Louris/Jeff Tweedy collaboration, ‘Weird Tales’ represents the best of the patchy Golden Smog output. In addition to Louris, Jayhawks members Marc Perlman and Kraig Johnson also contribute. The album is a delightful composite of two great talents with songs that stand up to almost anything that either writer produced within their own bands. It is also quite noticeable that the two or three songs that don’t quite make the grade have the words Tweedy or Louris missing from the writing credits. It is also arguable that working with Tweedy influenced Louris to take his own band further into new directions and to explore new soundscapes when making of ‘Smile’, which could be regarded as Louris’s ‘Summerteeth’.
Number 3: The Jayhawks ‘Tomorrow the Green Grass’ (1995)
The Jayhawks fourth album was the last to feature the Louris/Olson partnership, although the latter did briefly return for the fractious and slightly disjointed ‘Mockingbird Time’ in 2011. The vocal harmonies and gentle melodies that were by this time The Jayhawks’ trademarks, were there aplenty, but this time with a fuller sound courtesy of George Drakoulias’ production which utilised strings and brought Karen Grotberg’s swirling organ sounds more to the fore. Whilst retaining its country-rock roots, the album also offered a greater accessibility that in retrospect hinted at the sound of the post -Olson, Louris led Jayhawks.
Number 2: The Jayhawks ‘Sound of Lies’ (1997)
The band’s first post-Olson record saw Gary Louris take up principle songwriting duties with bass player Marc Perlman chipping in with three co-writes and drummer Tim O’Reagan also making a single contribution. The songs themselves were largely rooted amongst in Louris’ personal troubles at the time and that strife brings the best out of him creatively. However, despite the quality of Louris’ songwriting, the major achievement of ‘Sound of Lies’ is the total reinvention of the band in the wake of Olson’s departure. Unhindered by the counterweight folk/country leanings of Olson, Louris goes full pop. Karen Grotberg’s keys are pushed even more to the fore and help to define the overall sound of the album. At its core though is Louris’ flair for blending a captivating melody with glorious harmonies to produce near-perfect pop songs.
Number 1: The Jayhawks ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ (1992)
The Jayhawk’s third album, but their first properly recorded rather than based on demos, is widely acknowledged as the band’s highpoint. Recorded at the height of grunge, the album is firstly notable for the band following their own instincts. The Olson/Louris vocal harmonies are clearly influenced by The Everly Brothers, whilst a wide range of ingredients are blended into their overall sound – country for sure, but also folk, rock and pop. Despite this, ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ is not derivative or retrospective, it has a fresh and original feel to it, one at total odds to the musical trends of the period. Simply standing against the grain does not in itself make a piece of work outstanding; ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ has a substance rooted in the Olson/Louris songwriting partnership and added to by complementary instrumentation and a production that enhances both of those elements. Everything about the album feels right with the result being that most rare of things – near perfection.