Monday, April 30, 2007

Archives Project: STL #12

Title: Stumbling through the dark
Description: The Jayhawks... I thought it was a comeback
Date: 16 September 2003

(Only four days after the previous post!) I remembered this as a particularly crappy post. On rereading, it's fine, so probably I was projecting the subject matter on the post.

Thought: New Weird America is the new No Depression.

My friend Sassy asked me the other day what new music I have been listening to. "Jayhawks," I said. "The album's called Rainy Day Music. It's not as good as Tomorrow the Green Grass, but it's pretty good." Sassy passed over my implied headline ("Alt-Country Pioneers Return to Form") and asked instead, "Don't they have a song about being in love with somebody's mother?"

The fact that I didn't know if I had in my possession possibly the first love song for somebody else's mom in at least ten years (since Soundgarden's "Full On Kevin's Mom" I would guess, excepting any schmaltz-y odes to "the mother of my child"), really bugged me. I'm not one to fret much over pop song lyrics, since they seldom reward sustained, out of context attention, but this seems like something I should know.** I've listened to the album several times since then, and can say with certainty that no mothers are invoked as such, much less in adoration. What I found instead was that I didn't much like this album after all.

Maybe a little history is in order. The Jayhawks were/are one of the big names in the "alt-country" movement of the late eighties/early nineties, along with Uncle Tupelo, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, and many others. The movement represented a grappling with Authenticity, reinterpreting and reinvigorating folk and country vocabulary in a rock idiom. It gave jaded hipsters an alternative to grunge, which had exploded and been taken possession of by mainstream culture. The alt-country scene up and grew itself a set of values: learn about the past, don't tolerate crap in any of its countless manifestations, and eat at diners. I know that sounds like romantic nostalgia, if not a joke, but for me it was transformative.

Alt-country was also known as "No Depression" music, after Uncle Tupelo's cover of the Carter Family's "No Depression in Heaven." It's a suitable moniker, since the music is about ghosts and revenants. The extended Carter family, Hank Williams (only Senior, if that needs to be said), and Gram Parsons are among the saints of the movement. Parsons, one of the first to draw on country mannerisms in the rock genre, has been especially important to the Jayhawks over the years. Gary Louris and Mark Olson both wrote songs you could taste the dust in, and their harmonies sounded less like singing and more like a grudging brotherhood forged from years on the road.* They took years to unfold, and I only caught up with them when they put out Tomorrow the Green Grass, which I bought on cassette (we were going on a road trip) and promptly wore out. The album leads off with their shining moment, the song "Blue," which consolidates the group's major themes: friendship, loyalty, abandonment. Among the paradigms for perfection in human achievement is the three minute pop song, and "Blue" is one of those perfect songs. You can tell from the first note, as Louris and Williams join in what would become a valediction: "Where have all my friends gone?"

Three perfect minutes. That's a minor miracle and enough to keep the Jayhawks in our memories. After Tomorrow the Green Grass, Olson and Louris parted ways, with Louris soldiering on under the Jayhawks banner. Even though Louris is a stronger singer and arguably a better songwriter, the follow up The Sound of Lies is a mess. I bought in on strength of Tomorrow, but have never listened to it all the way through without getting bored. A better way to go is back, to Hollywood Town Hall, with the group and its ethic still in tact. There's more of populist feel to this record, with it's Steinbeckian observations ("The god for the rich man ain't the god for the poor"--perhaps Guthrie-esque is a better descriptor) and the distinctly anti-yuppie stance, accepting failure and deferment. Before Olson's departure, the Jayhawks were a band, facing inward and struggling together with their materials. Afterward they became an assembly.

My first few times through Rainy Day Music were unproblematic. It starts with the chiming "Stumbling Through the Dark," featuring Louris and Matthew Sweet. Sweet is a pop superhero, and the song quite nice. It admits failure and seeks intimacy, with its chiming Byrds-like guitar and gentle piano fills, not to mention Sweet's harmonies with Louris. Intimacy is a quality the best songs here: "Angelyne," and "Save It for a Rainy Day" (which includes the nice image of ex-lovers "standing outside the Chinese restaurant in the rain") Two songs urge a woman (a single mother maybe) to take off her make-up. But the balance of the songs are strangely distant, in part because the resonances on the album are just weird. Along with Parsons and "Caroline Don't," I hear a little David Bowie, a lot of generic classic rock, and even a little "Dust in the Wind." (Perhaps I'm not to be trusted on this, because I also hear the Canadian pop-metal group Triumph on Hollywood Town Hall. I'm sure it's unintentional, but on one occasion the phrasing clearly recalls "Never Surrender." I hope, gentle reader, that for your own sake you don't know what I'm talking about). Somewhat predictable and therefore even more disheartening is the Crosby Stills and Nash hash on "Madman" (which begins "Rage on, brother"!) For the most part, album sounds as fresh as you'd expect, given the appearance of two second-generation classic rockers, Jakob Dylan and Chris Stills.

Maybe if it wasn't for those three minutes eight years ago I'd find more to like. It's not that the group has grown in directions that I don't like, or that they aren't doing what they used to do. It's that "they" don't really exist any more, as a group, as friends arguing, but rather as an assembly playing out a set of possible outcomes, some of which I like and most of which I don't. Maybe they could use a few songs about falling in love with their friends' mothers.

The end result of all this is that I'm not listening to 2003's Rainy Day Music, but 1992's Hollywood Town Hall. I hadn't listened to the latter much while under the spell of Tomorrow the Green Grass, but now I find it a richer set of songs. It took me a while to catch on, but then again we've got time.

Next: American Splendor

*This description of Louris/Olson harmony strikes me as borrowed, but I don't know from where. I'll tell you if I ever come across it.

** "Stacy's Mom" by Fountains of Wayne is the song in question