The Jayhawks are one of the most respected acts to come out of the early days of the alt-country movement. Led by Gary Louris and Mark Olson, The Jayhwaks won a legion of fans with their Byrds inspired jangle pop/country sound and their extremely tight vocal harmonies. The formula worked to perfection on three wonderful albums… 1989’s Blue Earth, 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall, and 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass.
Despite the band’s success, founding member Olson left the group following the Tomorrow the Green Grass tour to pursue other projects. With the departure of his songwriting and vocal partner, Louris could have called it quits as well, but decided to keep the band together and keep releasing albums under the Jayhawks name.
Critical reviews were split on The Jayhawks first two post-Olson releases… 1997’s Sound of Lies and 2000’s Smile. On these releases, Louris seemed to abandon the group’s signature rootsy blend to explore a sound that drew from more pop and rock influences. Without Olson by his side, Louris took the opportunity to experiment a bit and try to expand his sound. He did so even while many fans were waiting and and hoping for a return to The Jayhawks sound of old.
In 2003, that return came in the form of the album Rainy Day Music.
The album’s opening track, “Stumbling Through the Dark,” begins with a finger picked riff that clearly recalls the band’s Byrdsian influences before settling into a loping country beat. The band’s trademark harmonies reappear here as well. This time, however, Louris blends with drummer Tim O’Reagan instead of Olson.
The next track is “Tailspin,” a song that adds an element of rock to the proceedings all while still featuring banjo (played by Bernie Leadon) and steel guitar. This track, along with the folksy rockers “The Eyes of Sarahjane” and “You Look So Young” go the furthest to remind me of the sound The Jayhawks so masterfully captured on Hollywood Town Hall.
The quieter moments on the disc play well here too. “All the Right Reasons” features harmony vocals from alt-popster Matthew Sweet (who also co-wrote “Stumbling Through the Dark”) and is a touching love song without being saccharine. The album closing trio of “Tampa to Tulsa,” “Will I See You in Heaven,” and “Stumbling Trough the Dark (Acoustic)” also provide a nice easy bookend to the proceedings.
Rainy Day Music doesn’t quite stand up to the level of the work The Jayhawks were doing when Olson and Louris were still a pair, but it does hearken back to that sound. This was also one of the albums that was very instrumental in shaping my appreciation of the Americana genre in the early part of this decade. For that reason, it belongs in my Top 10.