During their heyday in the first half of the 1990s, the Jayhawks perfected a captivating sound that seamlessly blended the elegant folk-rock of the Byrds, the adventurousness of the Buffalo Springfield, the hippiebilly soulfulness of the Flying Burrito Brothers and the soaring harmonies of the Beach Boys. So it’s richly ironic that their reappearance coincides with a dramatic resurgence of the musical approach they played such a central role in perpetuating—but this time around, the Jayhawks themselves are revered as icons by the young bands carrying on those same traditions., and it’s their own legacy that they’re advancing.

On Mockingbird Time, the Minneapolis-based band’s eighth album, and the first since 2003’s Rainy Day Music, they’re once again pushing the envelope in songs and performances of rarefied dynamism and grace, forming boldly intriguing stylistic and thematic combinations while retaining their unmistakable sound. The album’s shapes and textures range from the string-laden grandeur of “Hide Your Colors” and the widescreen vistas of “Tiny Arrows” to the streamlined 12-string jangle of “She Walks in So Many Ways” and the amphetamine frenzy of “High Water Blues.”

“We’re not an ‘80s hair band or a grunge band, we’re just a band,” says singer/guitarist Gary Louris about the Jayhawks, who formed in 1985. “We were always out of time and out of place and out of step, but our faults ended up being our strengths due to the fact that we were never locked into anything. So, without using the words ‘timeless’ or ‘closure,’ both of which I hate, I think it’s just that our music has aged well in and of itself, without being attached to any particular style or period.”

Make no mistake—this is a classic Jayhawks record, capturing the ultimate lineup of this great American band in full flight. But there’s an irony at work here as well: The new album marks the first time all five of these musicians—Louris and co-leader Mark Olson, bassist Marc Perlman, keyboard player Karen Grotberg and drummer Tim O’Reagan—have ever been in a recording studio as a unit. “There’s a lot of irony in this band,” says O’Reagan with a wry laugh.

As it happened, O’Reagan joined the Jayhawks immediately after the recording of the landmark 1995 album Tomorrow the Green Grass, and this configuration of the group toured together for eight months before Olson departed in late ‘95. After Olson relocated to Joshua Tree in the California desert and started the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers with his new wife Victoria Williams, Louris took over sole leadership of the Jayhawks. The band recorded three more albums—all reflective of the harmony-rich, Anglophilic pop leanings of Louris and Perlman, with O’Reagan’s soulful voice filling the void left by Olson and his Gram Parsons-like quaver.

In 2005, Louris pulled the plug on the band and launched a solo career, just as Olson was going solo as well following the end of his marriage to Williams. Little did either know then that the paths they’d set out on would soon lead them back to each other, and eventually to a new lease on life for the Jayhawks.

Working as an acoustic duo, Olson and Louris began writing new material together, recording the 2008 album Ready for the Flood and touring extensively behind it. “We went out on the road, just the two of us with our acoustic guitars,” says Olson. “I introduced Gary to what I’d been doing over the years, which was just picking up the gear and going. We had Ingunn [Ringvold, Olson’s girlfriend] playing some percussion with us, and we got along real well and had a lot of fun.” As Louris recalls, “We were billed as Mark and Gary from the Jayhawks, and people would always ask us, ‘When is the band getting back together?’”

The following summer, Perlman, Grotberg and O’Reagan joined them for a pair of festival dates in Spain, where the Jayhawks are revered by a sizable and loyal audience. Cranking it up onstage, the reunited bandmembers were delighted by how naturally they were able to pick up right where they’d left off 14 years earlier. “It sounds like a cliché, but playing those shows really was like riding a bike for all of us,” says O’Reagan.

Following that revelatory experience, the five Jayhawks agreed that they had “some unfinished business,” as Louris puts it, so they made a collective commitment to continue as a group—not merely revisiting their classic body of work but further expanding it. Says Olson, “Gary and I were actively involved in the process of making music together, and writing this record was the next step. We did it exactly like we’d always done: we got together, wrote the songs with the guitars and sang them into a modern-day cassette player, which is the computer.”

They wrote in Louris’ apartment in Minneapolis; they holed up in a cabin in the woods of northern Minnesota; they went out Olson’s place in Joshua Tree. “The two of us write very quickly,” says Louris. “That’s just the way it works for us, because we fill each other’s holes so well. When we start laughing, we know it’s a good song.”

From there, they played their song demos for the rest of the band and booked Terrarium Studios in Minneapolis. There was just one little problem: Olson had already committed to a U.K. tour behind his just-released Many Colored Kite album, and he had less than two weeks to do his vocal and instrumental parts. “In a normal session, we would have put the vocals last,” Olson explains. “But because of the time constraint, we went for the vocals right after we had the drums and rhythm guitar, and Karen’s piano on a couple songs. Our basic method is, we go in and we sing together on two different mics, and it worked out really well, because I was able to work with Gary one-on-one with our singing. The time issue forced us to just hone in and go to work. It was a very intense situation to run through all the songs and get the best takes possible, and I really enjoyed that.”

Having learned the tricks of the trade from world-class producers George Drakoulias, Bob Ezrin and Ethan Johns, the bandmembers knew how to make records, so the decision to have Louris produce the new album was a no-brainer. “All the producers we’ve worked with are great, and each record we’ve made was unique,” Perlman notes. “But I could tell with Gary that it was time for him to produce the Jayhawks. He’d been producing records for the last few years, so he knew what he was doing, and he’d earned that right.”

With Louris playing the point, the band developed the material in the studio, working up arrangements on the fly while tracking live off the floor. “We played the songs through as a band with the primary intention of getting a great drum track, and anything we were able to keep on top of that was a bonus,” says Perlman. “At this point, we don’t need a lot of discussion; we just go in and do what we do naturally.”

By the time Olson left the studio, he and Louris had nailed down the two-part harmonies that are the signature component of the Jayhawks sound. During the next couple of weeks, Louris, O’Reagan and Grotberg laid down additional three-part harmonies on tracks like “She Walks in So Many Ways” and “Guilder Annie,” adding variety and scale to the band’s sound, along with a number of goosebump moments. “When the voices blend and you feel it in your throat, it’s a real high,” Grotberg marvels—and that’s equally true for the listener.

“As a producer, one of Gary’s strongest points is vocal arranging,” says Perlman, the only non-singer in the band. “He had the most fun when everybody was out there harmonizing, because when you’ve got four people who can sing that well, it’s so easy to get what you hear in your head across.”

Though Olson insists that Mockingbird Time “is not a reunion record, because Gary and I were still in the game, thinking together leading up to it,” he does see it as part of a continuum. “I think this new record is right in there with Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass,” he ventures. “In a way, I think it’s even more melodic and soulful, the singing is possibly better and there are more styles on it.”

“The difference from then and now is that Mark and I have both experienced different kinds of music and expanded our palates,” Louris notes “So this record has moments of experimentation and a bit of worldliness. I like a well-crafted, in-and-out kind of song, but with Mark, the lyrics dictate the music, and he’ll go off into interesting, asymmetrical compositions. So it’s a nice balance. Certain things were meant to be—like peanut butter and jelly—and Mark and I just work well together. And having done a lot of co-writing during the last six or seven years, I’m more appreciative of the magic that we have together. That doesn’t come along very often for anybody.”

Says Grotberg, who’d spent the time between Jayhawks incarnations raising a daughter (she’s now 11), “To me, it feels fresh and new—in a way, it’s better than it was.”

If Mockingbird Time has a prevailing theme, it’s about coming to terms with what came before and pondering what’s ahead. Linchpin songs like the lush opening anthem “Hide Your Colors” (which could serve as the Jayhawks’ credo), the image-rich desert landscape “Tiny Arrows” and the ardent, bittersweet title track “are looking at time in different ways—whether you want to dwell on memories or keep going forward,” Olson explains. The force field between peering backward and pushing onward is a resonant one for this off again, on again band, with its fertile past, vital present and tantalizing future. “There’s a lot of blowing out left to do,” O’Reagan reckons.

“We’ve always been an unusual, complicated band,” Louris acknowledges. “We’ve never really fit in, and my personal goal is to be the exception to the rule: to be a band that got back together and made a great album. What makes me proud is that we’ve poured our heart and soul into something new. And we’re not done yet.”
—Bud Scoppa

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