“I’m gonna be a big star some day,” Gary Louris promised on the Jayhawks’ fifth album, 1997′s Sound of Lies. The song, unspooled one of the band’s best, cleverest hooks, but there was a biting irony in the prediction. Touted as perpetual up-and-comers thanks to the observant songwriting and brotherly harmonies of Louris and Mark Olson, the Minneapolis group never enjoyed commercial success to match their critical acclaim.
In late 1995, the Jayhawks suffered a seemingly fatal blow when Olson left the group in order to spend more time with his then-wife, the singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. It look like the end of the road for a great band with incredibly bad luck, but the Jayhawks soldiered on by reshuffling their lineup, dramatically tinkering with their sound, and expanding their range well beyond the alt-country they had helped pioneer. These reissues of their three post-Olson albums show how Louris kept the band afloat well into the 2000s, leading them through two of their most adventurous albums as well as one of their most traditional.
Sound of Lies is the hidden gem in the Jayhawks catalog: an album that balances professional frustration with hard-won optimism, art-rock production flourishes with big pop hooks. Rather than twang, the guitars scowl, especially on the dissonant “Think About It” and the anti-anthem “Dying on the Vine.” Louris candidly confronts the band’s travails (“this traveling band was not well-received”), but somehow never sounds bitter or entitled. Instead, his songs are clear-eyed and sober, as though the Jayhawks are accepting their fate as a midlevel act with a small but loyal following. No wonder the band identified so closely with Big Star.
Louris acknowledged that connection on “Mr. Wilson,” off the Jayhawks’ 2000 follow-up, Smile: “Can’t you see you’re my guardian angel, watching over me?” he asks of both Alex Chilton and the Beach Boy who gives both the song and the album their name. The enthusiasms of Brian Wilson define the spirit of these songs, yet the ambitions of Pink Floyd define their sound. Signaling a move even further away from their alt-country origins, the band hired super-producer Bob Ezrin, seemingly as much for his associations with Lou Reed, Alice Cooper and KISS as for his musical palette. It’s not an especially good match: The big rock flourishes and persistent drum loops distract from Louris’s songwriting and date the album severely, rendering Smile a noble yet failed experiment.
But it also gave the band something to react against. When the Jayhawks reconvened three years later for Rainy Day Music, they had pared their lineup down to a trio and their sound down to its barest essentials: voices and guitars. Much of the album is acoustic, some of it even country. A banjo races through “Tailspin” to suggest a vertiginous fall, and the gospel harmonies on “All the Right Reasons” suggest Louris’ new guardian angel is any member of the Band. The album’s power lies in its modesty and easy sincerity, which made it a particularly prescient album in 2003: You can hear the seeds of current big stars like John Fullbright, Dawes and the Delta Spirit in its rambling sound and almost aggressive earnestness. It’s about as far as you can get from Sound of Lies and Smile without forming a whole new band, yet for that reason, these three reissues make the most sense not as standalone albums, but as a box set chronicling the band’s unheralded second act.