Published Apr 29, 2016Perhaps the most quietly influential Americana band of the past 30 years, Minnesota's Jayhawks never achieved the commercial success that many (including early backer Rick Rubin) predicted for them, but in the three decades since their formation in the late 1980s, the Jayhawks' reputation among their peers has far outpaced their middling fan base; everyone from Wilco and Bon Iver to the Dixie Chicks and Nickel Creek counts them among their key influences. Certainly, it's tough to imagine the advent of harmony-forward bands like the Lone Bellow and Fleet Foxes, or twangsters like the Turnpike Troubadours and the Sadies without the Jayhawks' varied contributions over the years.
Though their story is a bit messy — the band's lineup has shifted from record to record and Mark Olson, one of their co-founders and central voices, has been on- and mostly off-again — the band's two consistent members, Gary Louris and Marc Perlman, have managed to craft a remarkably steady catalogue over the years.
Now, three decades into their story, the Jayhawks have dropped their ninth studio album. Out of what has been a difficult few years for the band, years that included Olson's acrimonious departure following the ill-fated reformation of a classic Jayhawks incarnation and Louris's subsequent admission that he's been plagued by addiction and suicidal depression since the early 2000s, the band has nevertheless managed to build a rich slate of new material.
Pared down to a lean foursome of Louris, Perlman, longtime drummer Tim O'Reagan and pianist Karen Grotberg, but enhanced by work from friends like co-producer Peter Buck and his former REM compatriot Mike Mills, the result here is at once confident and experimental, a record that moves from jangly pop songs ("Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces," "Isabel's Daughter," "Leaving the Monsters Behind") to fuzzed-out sonic excursions ("Ace," "Pretty Roses In Your Hair") with grace.
Though not everything works (the swampy jam of "Ace" is probably a lot more fun to play than to listen to), most of Paging Mr. Proust feels vibrant and vital. Some hints of the darkness of recent years are certainly present, haunting the album's lyrics and colouring gorgeous closing track "I'll Be Your Key," but ultimately this is a triumphant record, a reassertion of power following a period of uncertainty and turmoil.
The result is a most welcome and simply terrific record from a perennially underrated band. (Thirty Tigers)