Album Review: The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time

by Bill DeVille

The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time
The Jayhawks - Mockingbird Time (Courtesy of Rounder Records)

It's been a long time coming, but The Jayhawks are back! The band has been lying pretty low since 2003's Rainy Day Music release. Maybe the most exciting news is that founding member Mark Olson is back in the fold, so the high-lonesome, brotherly harmonies of Olson and Gary Louris are back intact, and, for the most part, sounding as good as ever.

The Jayhawks got their start in the mid-'80s playing Minneapolis clubs like the 400 Bar and the Uptown. They released their first album, simply called The Jayhawks (a.k.a. "The Bunkhouse Album"), back in 1986. Their second album, The Blue Earth was essentially a collection of demos, but garnered the band enough success that they were signed to the American label, where they made their masterpiece, Hollywood Town Hall. The band's follow-up, Tomorrow the Green Grass, was every bit as good.

The band's country-rock sound was hugely influential around the Twin Cities and elsewhere. They were always my favorite band to see live. Me and fellow 'hawks fans would compare notes on their setlists. To their fans, they were almost a religious experience. Their First Avenue shows were always the stuff of legend!

Olson shocked the band's loyalists when he quit the group and moved to Joshua Tree, Calif. to be with then-wife Victoria Williams. The Jayhawks reinvented themselves and headed in more of a pop/rock direction. The band released Sound of Lies, Smile, and Rainy Day Music with Louris captaining the ship and singing the bulk of the lead vocals. Their albums ultimately sold better in the post-Olson years. Quietly, the band went in hiatus as Louris wanted to spend more time at home to raise his son.

Then, a few years ago, Olson and Louris tested the waters and did a small tour, which led to an album from the duo. Next thing we knew, the Jayhawks were soaring again, and booked a few gigs with Olson back in the fold.

Here we are in 2011 with the Jayhawks releasing an album with Olson in the group for the first time since 1995. Mockingbird Time is also the first produced by Louris. The album shows a kinder, gentler Jayhawks, with fewer blazing Louris guitar solos, but still with plenty of the band's signature "close harmonies," as heard in one the album's highlights, "She Walks In So Many Ways." It's also one of the few tracks where you can hear the voices of drummer Tim O'Reagan and pianist Karen Grotberg, who's also back in the band for the first time in years. This one might be the album's "Blue," the band's "shoulda been" hit, the kind of tune that makes you want to sing along. This isn't the only tune in that classic Jayhawks mode. The album's first track, "Hide Your Colors," would make the Jayhawks setlist in any era, with it's elegant string arrangement and a solo from Louris that sounds like it's straight from the George Harrison playbook. There is also the album's prettiest track, the lovely "Pouring Rain at Dawn," which sounds like it could have been recorded on the front porch with Olson and Louris and their trusty acoustic guitars.

Maybe the best thing about Mockingbird Time is that they aren't trying to make another Hollywood Town Hall or Tomorrow the Green Grass. The band shows a few new tricks with a pedal steel on one track, some bluesy guitar licks, and even a fiddle on "Black- Eyed Susan," which has an almost Fairport Convention feel. There's also the spirited "High Water Blues," which shows a whimsical side of the 'hawks with some uncharacteristic twists and turns.

"Tiny Arrows" is a sprawling Americana tune, with an arsenal of guitars, from Spanish, to the fuzzed Crazy Horse guitar style Louris often favors, to a few blues licks . This one also features plenty of the lyrics that the team of Olson and Louris have always favored. Lines like, "sit and watch the river flow/try to touch the sky." They don't sing about the bling! Their lyrics almost always seem to favor the earth and the weather with lines about the sunshine, rain, clouds, and flowing rivers, which are often metaphors for love and love gone wrong.

The Jayhawks sound like a band refreshed, and it seems they may have a bunch of music left in them. Mockingbird Time is a welcome return for the Jayhawks. Pick it up, slap it in and sing along.