The opening tune to the new Jayhawks album Paging Mr. Proust isn’t just a fine encapsulation of the band’s Americana and pop inspirations. It is quite possibly the perfect pop song.
Clocking in at three minutes, there isn’t a wasted breath on Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces. It exudes melancholy and a hint of restless urgency (“Not far, a blue guitar was playing; it drew me like it knew me, saying…”) then strides along with such an effortless melodic flow as to recall The Byrds at their best. But then there are the vocals: a three-part harmony design created by Jayhawks chieftain Gary Louris along with keyboardist Karen Grotberg and drummer Tim O’Reagan. That’s the dealbreaker: a simple, infectious but overwhelmingly emotive wave of singing that proclaims, in definitive terms, that The Jayhawks have returned.
So captivating is the song that upon first listen to the album, I hit repeat five times before exploring the other riches within Paging Mr. Proust.
This is another new era for The Jayhawks, however. Co-founder Mark Olson, who re-teamed with Louris for a few years, resulting in a fine 2009 duo album, Ready for the Flood, and a somewhat deflating 2011 reunion set with the band, Mockingbird Time, is gone again. With Louris back in charge (he wrote or co-wrote all 12 songs on Paging Mr. Proust), we’re reminded of how underrated the trio of Jayhawks records were that surfaced between 1997 and 2003, the era encompassing the first time Olson jumped ship (2003’s Rainy Day Music, in fact, easily rivals classics like 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall).
Like the other Olson-less records, Paging Mr. Proust downplays the alt country aspects of the band’s 1980s and ’90s music and goes right for the pop jugular, but in a way that maintains a wistfulness that is still country in sentiment. Lovers of the Sun, for instance, sounds like a cross between early Velvet Underground (notice the strong melodic references to Femme Fatale) and harmonies that are Beach Boys/Fleetwood Mac worthy. On tunes like Comeback Kid, the tone and attitude shifts to modern indie pop (The Shins comes to mind) but with subtle electronica colors, a syncopated drive and a gray narrative that is pure Louris. Then Leaving the Monsters Behind calls us back home with an autumnal feel that is harmoniously comforting but emotively bittersweet.
This luscious record draws to a close with the twilight feel of I’ll Be Your Key. Lovely but slightly forlorn in disposition (“I was so unused, I guess that you were, too”), the song reveals a battle-scarred but refueled Jayhawks, a band ready again for a reluctant take-off to skies familiar and foreign.
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.