The Jayhawks had, seemingly, everything going for them in the 90's. They were the poster-band of a hot new genre, alt.-country, had a major league contract with Def American, and a buzz-worthy album, Hollywood Town Hall. Then there was the writing team of Marc Olson and Gary Louris, either one liable to come up with a sweet hit, and together the makers of Everly-worthy harmonies. But as Jayhawks fans know, they were the band who never quite made it over the hill.
Excitement was still in the air after the 1995 album Tomorrow The Green Grass, but that's when the big blow happened. Olson was fed up with having his music compromised by the record label and his bandmates, and abruptly left. The rest of the band decided to continue, but things weren't going to be the same.
Since a major reformation in 2011, including the return of Olson, the band's original albums have been receiving the deluxe treatment. Now it's the turn of the post-Olson works, a trio of high-quality discs that continued the familiar pattern. The songs were great, the true fans loved them, the shows were wonderful, but they couldn't break out of cult status. Some bands just aren't meant for it, no matter how good.
Each one comes with several period bonus cuts, and new historical liner notes, and are certainly worthy of an upgrade if you did have the originals. 1997's Sound Of Lies was the first with Gary Louris assuming sole leadership and writing most of the songs. Luckily, he was ready with the goods, although the country influence was on the decline. More rock and experimentation was moving in, the guitars crunched more and a more somber and cynical tone was cast on the album. Even the fun, Petty-like number Big Star was totally ironic, Louris acknowledging he'd probably never leave the club scene. Those who were drawn to the Jayhawks for their Americana/Gram Parsons nods would now need to broaden their horizons to stay fans.
Smile was next in 2000, and featured a big gun producing, hard rock vet Bob Ezrin. The disc started off with one of the band's catchiest singles ever, I'm Gonna Make You Love Me, but then got dramatic and large. The songs were more complicated, and the sonics thick. It's not an easy-breezy listen, although the same heavenly harmonies and major melodies are still in great supply. The words instead felt distinctly uneasy.
2003 saw the group shed a good deal of the darkness, strip back to a trio, bring in producer Ethan Johns and make what was the closest thing to an acoustic album since their formative late 80's work. Rainy Day Music was home to the most concise and accessible set of songs since the Olson days. That includes the should've-been-hits Tailspin, Save It For A Rainy Day and Angelyne. It should have re-energized their career, but once again, whatever needed to click didn't. Go figure. But don't let that stop you enjoying, be hip with the cult!
The bonus tracks come from demo tapes, obscure European b-sides, alternative recordings and a couple of live tracks to show how grand the band was at that time. Each disc has either five or six extras, and none of them are boring throw-aways. Highly recommended, as are all the other Jayhawks albums.